This post is part one in a series about helping young kids learn to nourish themselves well. Today: Talking to toddlers about healthy eating and dealing with common toddler food challenges
Stay tuned for posts about building an active life and curious spirit!
What kind of mindset do you want your kids to have when it comes to healthy behaviors?
You probably want them to want to eat nutritious foods, to want to be active, to be curious and determined and enjoy learning.
Somehow though, in our culture kids so commonly grow up to prefer packaged foods and sweet treats, only eating vegetables when they are forced. They need to be pried away from screens and off the couch, and spend very limited time outdoors. True curiosity is replaced by “will I have to know this for the test?” and learning becomes something they’re forced to do at school.
And that leads to grownups who struggle to make consistently positive health choices. Everything becomes a chore. We have to force ourselves to make the choices that will benefit our health in the long term. And often we don’t. It’s easier to grab the quick packaged snack than to shop for, prepare, and clean up the more wholesome meal. It’s easier to sit on the couch and watch a show, play games or scroll through the phone than to be up moving and engaged in the world.
Much of the trouble comes from our environment, our culture. These are themes I’ll be exploring in this blog. But for today, I’m sharing some phrases I’ve found or come up with to help my young kids build the right mindset. I want them to internalize healthy habits (though I rarely actually use the word “healthy” when I talk to them; I think it’s too abstract at their age.) I want choosing a variety of healthy foods, being active throughout the day and constantly learning to just be what they DO. Not what they think they should do. The difference matters.
Talking to toddlers about food and nutrition
My kids are young (approaching ages 2 and 4). So we spend much of our time dealing with the usual toddler food challenges – picky eating and emerging food preferences, meal timing/structure, and the occasional power struggle. In this toddler/preschool stage, my goals are simple. Expose them to a wide variety of foods (and try not to get too frustrated when they don’t eat them). Don’t push too much (because it backfires). Let them feel their hunger and fullness and act accordingly. And I work to model balanced/varied eating.
All of this is to support my long term goal for them: to have a healthy relationship with food and an internal wisdom about how eating affects how they feel.
Helpful phrases to encourage variety:
“We eat all different kinds of foods.” I find myself using this one a lot. As toddlers do, mine tend to get stuck in a pattern of wanting a certain food over and over. Sorry bud, you can’t have a cheese wrap for lunch and dinner every single day.
“Maybe you don’t like it yet. You might someday.” It’s important for kids to understand that their tastes will change as they grow. They’ll be more open to trying a food again later when they get curious about it. And they should know there’s nothing wrong with not liking a food now – I don’t want them feeling judged and stressed at mealtimes.
“You don’t have to eat it.” Tried and true phrase for the picky eating world. Taking the pressure off and removing the power struggle is so important. (Reality check: I’m not perfect. Sometimes, I do fall into the power struggle trap. It never ends well. It pays to practice being calm.)
“You don’t have to have any on your plate.” I used to always put at least a small portion of each food on my toddler’s plate, but even that became a power struggle for my oldest. So I dropped it and have been working towards more family style meals where he can serve himself. Sometimes he’ll shock me and take something I thought he wouldn’t. Sometimes he’ll shock me even more and actually eat one bite of the unnecessarily gigantic portion he took.
“You can try some of mine if you’d like.” When he won’t serve himself the food, but seems to be watching me intently as I eat it, I’ll offer to share. Sometimes he will, often he won’t. But I can see him thinking about it more seriously. For some reason, my kid is waay more likely to try a bite of Dad’s food than mine, even if it’s the SAME thing.
Helpful phrases to encourage responding to hunger/fullness
If I can tell he’s full but is still lingering over a well-liked food, wanting to eat more: “We can always save some for later” or “we’ll have this again soon.” (My 3-year old seems to get a kick out of “saving his plate for later” and will sometimes insist that I do so even when there’s just one bite of food left on it.)
Regarding sweets/treats, when they want extra: This tasted pretty good, didn’t it? I think so too. “It’s a food that’s fun to eat, but it doesn’t have much in it to help you grow stronger. We just have a little so we can leave space for other foods.” Also useful here is We’ll have this again soon – maybe even noting a specific time when that will happen.
“If you’re still hungry, you can have more of X” -with X generally being the main dish or vegetable/side dish from the meal. I’ll make sure to offer something that they likes or at least tolerate. Often they’ll decide they’re not hungry enough for that and decide to be done with the meal. (Note: they are not always happy about it.)
My “nutrition” talk with my toddlers is rarely about nutrients
I don’t use the terms “good” or “bad,” or even “healthy” or “unhealthy.” If my oldest has questions (like why we buy a certain food at the store but not another), I’ll frame my answer in simple terms like “this food has lots of things in it that help your body grow and be strong.” Outside of that it’s rare that I talk about foods in terms of nutrition. I definitely don’t discuss calories or weight. As he grows, his questions and my answers will need to get more sophisticated (because he’s a curious little thinker who is not satisfied when an answer seems too simple). At which point I’ll share a new post with you showcasing what I find helpful for that age/stage.
The important things right now are simple.
- Be open to trying new things.
- Use hunger and fullness as guides for how much to eat.
- Understand that some foods fuel our bodies better than others, but all foods are ok to eat.
Basically, don’t drown out their internal nutrition wisdom with rules and pressure. With these simple goals and phrases, hopefully your toddler food challenges seem less overwhelming. They don’t have to eat and love every vegetable just yet.
What do you want your toddler to be learning about food and nutrition?