BabyC’s 12 Steps to Healthy Toddler Eating

I used to think I knew a lot about food. I have a Ph.D. in Nutrition, for crying out loud. Then I became a mom.

It isn’t just about me anymore. As a mother, I feel the weight of the responsibility of raising a healthy eater. I want BabyC to not only eat well today, but to also enjoy eating and grow up to have a healthy relationship with food. None of my coursework in grad school prepared me for this job.

Over the last year, I have learned a lot about feeding a child. Who has been my most important teacher? The kid herself.

If BabyC could say more than “ack-ack” (cracker) or “ana” (banana), here’s what I think she’d like me to know about feeding her:

Lesson 1. You can’t make me eat anything. You just can’t. You can try, but Mama, that just takes the fun out of it! And how do you think I’ll feel about broccoli in 20 years if you force me to eat it now?

Lesson 2. Relax. It isn’t your job to decide how much or even whether I eat. That’s my job. Your job is to fix good food and put it on the table at regular mealtimes. You can handle that, right?

Lesson 3. Sit down to eat with me. Otherwise, I feel bored and will take the opportunity to repeat my milk pouring experiment for the 248th time. I feel pretty certain about the gravity thing, but now I’m curious to see just how large of a diameter I can make it splatter on the floor.

Lesson 4. And put your phone away. That’s just rude.

Lesson 5. I don’t need a lot of snacks. Who has time to snack all day when there are playgrounds to explore and trees to climb? Let’s just stick with sharing an afternoon snack at the table after my nap. Without a lot of snacking, I might actually feel hungry when we sit down for a meal, and I might actually feel like trying something new.

Lesson 6. I don’t care about nutrients. I care about food. Stop trying to count nutrients, Mama. You’re just driving yourself crazy. Let’s keep it simple. At most meals, try to get a protein, something green, and something yellow/orange/red on my plate. Let me take care of the rest. I’ll be fine.

Lesson 7. Make it fresh. If you want me to eat more vegetables, forget about what’s in the freezer. Let’s go to the farmer’s market and get some super-crisp snow peas and sun-ripened cherry tomatoes. Now we’re talking.

Lesson 8. Give me flavor. If you want me to try kale, how about sprinkling some of that nice sea salt on it? Also, I like my butternut squash with a little butter and just a pinch of brown sugar. Plain veggies are for babies. Oh, and don’t forget about bacon! If all else fails, add a little bacon.

Lesson 9. Back off every once in a while, Mama. It’s fun to eat with other people. Like the other day, when you went out for a run while I hung out at my friends’ house, we tried lots of new foods! And when our friend was unpacking her picnic lunch at the park while you were jabbing on with another mama, I just had to try some of that seaweed and salmon. Sometimes food tastes better when someone more interesting than my mom is eating it.

Lesson 10. Don’t give up. If I seem skeptical of green things, that’s because I just have this sense inside me that I should be careful about eating too many bitter plants. I might have to taste something LOTS of times before I feel OK about it. That might have saved my life if you were raising me to forage in the forest for my food.

Lesson 11. Juice? What’s juice? The only juice I know about is the sticky sweet stuff that drips down my arm when I eat a ripe peach. I like a little milk with meals, but not so much that I don’t have room in my small tummy to try the other delicious food on my plate.

Lesson 12. Make it fun. Let’s go berry-picking!

That’s it. Everything you need to know about feeding toddlers, straight from the source. Thanks, BabyC.

What have you learned about feeding toddlers? What would you add to BabyC’s list?

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24 thoughts on “BabyC’s 12 Steps to Healthy Toddler Eating

  1. Hi Doctor Mom, your post is telling a lot of truths! Of course, though I don’t have a child, I know the responsibility on shoulder and it’s a nature for many well-educated parents to feed their kids so conciously, or even forcely. But you are great by telling people babies have their own thoughts which we should follow.
    I bet your sweet heart BabyC will develop a healthy life-style later life since she has got a role model for her, a mum who understands, cares, thinks for her.
    I got an idea about “Lesson 12: Make eating fun! I am only a little babe, playing is my only thing to do. So let’s make eating fun”

  2. A great read and so true. It is so easy to get obsessed with the nutrient count. I find myself sometimes doing a mental checklist at the end of the day. For example counting the servings of fruit & veg consumed that day! It is so important to make it fun and let your child get involved and relax.

  3. Ah yes, #3 hits home. That doesn’t stop, by the way. Our 3 year old still experiments with pouring milk on the floor, only now the variable he’s testing is “He’s not paying any attention to me now, what sort of fun thing can I get Daddy to say when I do this?” Yeah. There’s a great book, called Hungry Monkey, by Matthew Amster-Burton (http://hungrymonkeybook.com/). We loved it- he’s a gourmand, and basically talks about having a ton of fun just exposing his daughter to all sorts of things. Really helped us relax about kid eating, and not worry that something was going to be too spicy/sauced/weird for them to try.

  4. Great post Alice, and right on target! Baby C knows what she’s talking about! Amazing what we can learn when we listen to our little ones, isn’t it? One more tip that might help toddlers: Serve little bits of food from a larger bowl and allow your child to ask for more, and/or serve herself from the larger bowl. Sometimes, too much food on a plate can be overwhelming, and/or too tempting to play with. Letting your child ask for more avoids this and also really puts her in charge of deciding how much is enough. Also, it’s empowering for toddlers to be involved in the process of eating this way. They like to help serve themselves!

  5. I let my little girl who is 15 months old pick huckleberries and raspberries (which she has never liked) the other day and she gobbled them up it was do cute to see the joy on her face as she picked berries and ate them up! Love your blog post I wish more people would think about food from children’s perspective. I did it appealing how people treat children when it comes to food.

  6. I love this! So true. I also have found that if I involve my toddler in the cooking process (helping to wash the veggies, mixing, etc) she’s much more likely to eat it because she helped to make it! Dinner now takes twice as long to make, but it’s more fun. Also, I’ve found that we need to be eating what she’s eating too. It’s not fair for me to make her eat carrot sticks if I’m going to have sun-chips. :) I like to say that she keeps me accountable for my own healthy eating.

  7. I love this post. Can I make copies of it to give to parents in my pediatric practice at the 12 month checkup? The only think I would add as Lesson 12 is “not to let me drink all my calories or on days that I am not hungry not to feel you have to give me more milk or juice.” You’re a better writer (and have the PhD in nutrition) so it’s best that you make it sound right. Also, lesson 10, I love lesson 10, I tell parents about being picky being a survival skill/trait from when we were foragers. They love and “get” it. You should write a whole post on that, or have you? Good job!

    • Kim, I just remembered that I meant to respond to this comment after seeing your amazingly sweet comment on my latest post! I love your idea, and I’m updating my post to include a #12. And yes, you may absolutely print copies to give to parents in your practice. I would be honored. Let me know if you have trouble with the printing – sometimes tell me that they do.

  8. This is great! I am lucky enough o have a 6 year old that has developed a theory in her eating that is strange to others.. no butter, no salt,never had a soda, fruit first, veggies second, meat is sometimes ok, but loves vegetarian protein sources, races me on water consumption (of course its just a game, she does not drink a gallon). It would of been easier to teach her to eat well with your tips….. Thank you!

  9. No. 2, 3, 4, are so true and trying new foods should never be forced because what I have seen is parents say I do not like and how can you teach if you do not teach them properly. Also I feel that parents need to put food on the table and let them pick some and teach them how to portion their food. It is not fair for moms or dads to put large amounts of food on their plates and expect them to eat what they desire . Eat with and enclude them at the table and put those cell phones away.

  10. #12. I don’t care how messy this place gets,Mama. I will eat my food however I want to. I don’t want to use a spoon. Period.

    As I am trying to promote independence for my son, my anal self oftentimes freak out whenever I see him play or make a mess with his food.

    Great post!

    • Love it! Actually, I think this is great to remember for infants, but I struggle with this in the toddler phase. I want mealtimes to be pleasant and fun, but I do find that I have to set some limits around mealtime behavior. I usually allow BabyC to play with her food a little – sorting, moving some of it onto the table, etc. But I draw the line when she starts pouring her milk into her bowl (unless there is cereal in it) or onto the floor or banging her spoon against her dishes.

  11. Love this! You are right in sync with my favorite book on feeding, “Child of Mine” by Ellyn Satter. I use her philosophy of division of responsibility for feeding in my clinic with families all of the time, but I love that you’ve explained it from the child’s perspective. Kids really do know what to do if we just listen and provide the right environment. Thanks so much. Will be sharing this with other parents.

    • I love “Child of Mine” as well and will be using to teach a nutrition course this fall. That book really helped me with the transition to starting solids and bringing BabyC into our family meals. The concepts are simple, and they really reduce anxiety around feeding. Thanks for sharing my post!

  12. awesome post! I think lesson 5 has made the most difference with my kids. Also for flavor (lesson 8) I would add garlic! i’ve noticed that my cauliflower mash (like mashed potatoes) is good enough for me even sans salt as long as there’s a little boiled or roasted garlic in it and baby boy loves his green peas with a little garlic, too! I think it helps to let kids learn about “sweet” from fresh fruits and veggies during their first year instead of having sweet processed foods around.

    • I made the most delicious garlic pesto from garlic scapes last month. Gosh it was good, and BabyC ate it up. It did have a lot of cheese in it, but I liked that it had a nice mild garlic flavor – one of the joys of food!

  13. Great post! One thing that has worked for us recently is “vegetable medley” pestos…I’ve been mixing arugula, kale, and basil (with some cheese of course!) and finding that my little guy will eat some greens as long as it is attached (and can’t be picked off of) his pasta.

  14. Pingback: Toddler Approved Veggies: Roasted Kale Chips | Science of Mom

  15. Pingback: What’s Your Feeding Style? (Fearless Feeding Review and Giveaway) | Science of Mom

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