Expanding the Toddler Food Universe
Are you convinced that your toddler will never allow a green vegetable to pass his lips? Have sugary treats become one of your child's basic food groups? Are white, carbohydrate-laden foods -- such as bread and crackers -- the only fare he will eat? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you're not alone. In fact, recent studies indicate that potatoes, mainly in the form of French fries, are the most commonly eaten vegetable among toddlers, which is no surprise, given that 42 percent of kids between the ages of 15 months and 2 years eat fast food each day.
That's where I come in. I'm a nutritionist, and I challenged three parents with toddlers to keep a three-day food diary recording everything their child ate. After reviewing and analyzing their intake, not only did I tell the parents how to sneak nutrition into their kids' diets, but I gave suggestions for getting these picky eaters to try new foods. Use the advice to get your finicky toddler to broaden his horizons.
Introducing New Tastes
If you're trying to get your kid to eat a new vegetable, don't give him a hearty amount. Instead, just add one tablespoon of it to his meal. After he's developed a taste for it, then you can feed him more.
How much should your toddler* eat? This guide will help you visualize his small portion sizes.
Grains (3 servings per day)
1/2 cup cooked pasta: 1 adult handful
1 oz. cereal: 2 adult handfuls
1 pancake: compact disc
1 oz. roll: yo-yo
Vegetables (2 servings per day)
1/2 cup cooked vegetables: 1/2 baseball
1 cup salad: 2 adult handfuls
Dairy (2 servings per day)
1 cup yogurt: Play-Doh can
1.5 oz. natural cheese: 3 dice
Meat (2 servings per day)
1/4 cup tuna: golf ball
1 oz. chicken: matchbook
Fruit (2 servings per day)
1/2 cup cut-up fruit: 1 adult handful
1 medium fruit: baseball
*Servings should be smaller for toddlers under age 2.
Child 1: Feast or Famine
The Eater: Luke Prater, 2 1/2 years
Daily Food Intake
1 pancake (homemade, 5 inches across)
1/4 cup blueberries
2 tsp. syrup
3 bites sausage link
4 oz. 1 percent milk
1 1/2 frozen microwaved chicken nuggets
1 medium banana
3/4 medium orange
4 oz. water
8 grape tomatoes
4 oz. cranberry-apple 100 percent juice
1/2 cup spaghetti with tomato sauce and 94 percent lean ground beef
4 oz. water
4 oz. 1 percent milk
4 oz. water
What Mom Says: "Luke will either eat like a horse or won't take a single bite," says Lisa Prater, mother of three boys under age 5, in Des Moines.
The Good News: When Luke's in feasting mode, he eats a varied diet that includes servings from all the food groups. His mom thoughtfully plans out his meals and adds small amounts of protein to each. This is a healthy way to keep blood sugar even and mood swings at bay. On average, he drinks water and 2 cups of milk a day, the recommended amount for his age. (His mom watches his juice intake closely.)
What to Improve: Luke's intake varied from one day to the next and even one meal to the next. For example, on one day not shown here, he ate a hearty breakfast and a midmorning snack but then took two bites at lunch and skipped dinner altogether. This ever-changing pattern can be frustrating for caregivers, especially when tactics, such as taking away privileges or forcing a child to sit at the table until he eats, don't work -- they didn't with Luke.
In addition, Luke's intake of whole grains and fiber -- which keep a kid's digestive system running smoothly -- was low. This can be very common in toddlers who eat a lot of refined white-flour products.
Realistic Solutions: Luke's mom shouldn't worry about how much he's eating at each meal because at 2 1/2 years, he can self-regulate: If a toddler eats less at one meal, he knows to make up for it at the next meal. If Prater keeps Luke's portions realistic, she may find that she is less frustrated and wastes less food. Plus, Luke will be hungrier at the next meal. Most important, letting Luke decide how much and when to eat will reduce tension and encourage a better eating pattern.
To get Luke to eat more fiber, his mom could swap whole-grain pancakes for white-flour ones and do the same with pasta and cereal. She could also sprinkle wheat germ or a high-fiber cereal into yogurt.
When choosing cereal, look for 3g to 5g of fiber and no more than 5g of sugar per serving. Breads and crackers should have 2g of fiber per serving. Check to make sure they're made with only whole-grain flour, which should be listed as the first ingredient.
What Worked: "The whole wheat pasta and cereals have been swapped seamlessly. In fact, the other night Luke said, 'Mom, these are the best noodles ever!'" says Prater. "And mealtime is less stressful at my house because I'm not pressuring the kids to finish their food, and I'm giving smaller portions, letting them ask for seconds. When Luke says he's done, we say that's fine and let him stop. He sometimes comes back a few minutes later and wants to eat some more, so I usually leave his plate out for a few minutes longer to make sure he's done."
Child 2: Too Many Snacks & Liquids
The Eater: Danielle Peck, 27 months
Daily Food Intake
1/2 regular-size Eggo Waffle
6 oz. 50 percent orange juice/50 percent water
1 mini-box raisins
5 1/2 oz. apple juice
1 package Dora fruit snacks
8 mini Oreo Cookies
hot dog with white bun (2/3 serving)
handful Lays potato chips
2 bites white cupcake with buttercream icing
4 oz. lemonade
1/2 small portable cup vanilla ice cream
3 pieces Andes chocolate candies
1 mini Hershey's chocolate bar (4 squares)
few licks of a lollipop
5 oz. skim milk
handful colored Goldfish
What Mom Says: "Danielle ends up snacking throughout the day when we're running here and there and these foods aren't always the most nutritious choices. Danielle, along with my other two kids, can be picky. I've given up trying to get them to eat anything besides pizza, pasta, chicken nuggets, or hot dogs," says Davora Peck, mother of three kids under age 6, in San Antonio.
The Good News: Danielle starts each day with a hearty breakfast. Her mom tries to keep cookies and chips out of the house because she's aware Danielle will fill up on them like she did at her sister's birthday party, as seen in the diary.
What to Improve: The nutritionally poor choices -- hot dogs and other processed foods -- Danielle fills up on leave no room for better fare. Plus, Danielle drinks more juice than the 4 to 6 oz. recommended per day and she typically snacks on simple carbohydrates, such as fruit gummies, crackers, and white bread, which are high in calories and sugar but low in nutrients, such as fiber and protein.
Realistic Solutions: Danielle's mom could give breakfast a nutritional boost by adding fruits, such as strawberries, bananas, or single-serving tropical fruits packed in water, which add a fun twist and are very convenient. Whenever possible, she can also offer a healthier version of a kid-friendly favorite: Because Danielle likes chicken nuggets, her mom can bread chicken tenderloins and bake them. You can also replace breads, crackers, bagels, and waffles with their whole-grain versions. Water (or watered-down juice) and whole fruit, such as apple slices, are simple swaps for times Danielle wants juice or fruit snacks. Other choices: halved grape tomatoes, cheese, or a hard-boiled egg.
To prevent Danielle from grazing on junk food, her mom should have Danielle sit at the table for meals, which should consist of less processed fare from at least two food groups. Adding vegetables to meals can take little effort too: Microwave frozen broccoli or green beans or try canned carrots (rinse well to remove much of the salt). If Danielle rejects the new food, her mom can try to find another healthy substitute but shouldn't give in.
What Worked: "I've been including vegetables with at least one meal a day. Danielle and I make a deal that she has to take at least one bite of all the good foods on her plate. Sometimes she even wants more. Although Danielle wouldn't eat veggies as a snack, she did accept the fruit instead of the gummies. Plus, I've been including the kids in planning the weekly meals. They each get to pick one. This way they each get one night of their favorite food, but it'll be a healthier choice, such as baked chicken nuggets," says Peck.
Child 3: A Veggie-less Diet
The Eater: Addison Ragsdale, 20 months
Daily Food Intake
2 oz. milk
3 oat bran dollar-size pancakes with maple syrup
2 oz. apple juice with 4 oz. water
2 oz. milk
1/2 peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread without crust
1 mini-box Sun-Maid raisins (15 raisins)
1/2 cup Uncle Ben's rice mixed with canned black beans and 1/2 fried egg
1/6 Granny Smith apple
6 oz. milk
If your daily specials are being rejected, get creative with presentation and place food on your kid's favorite character plate.
What Mom Says: "I struggle to expand Addison's food preferences beyond peanut butter and jelly, pasta, and fruit," says Claudia Ragsdale, of Los Angeles. "I also worry if he's getting enough protein because he doesn't eat meat that often."
The Good News: Addison doesn't eat much meat or poultry, but he does get plenty of protein because he drinks about 2 cups of milk a day and he eats beans, cheese, and peanut butter. So take that concern off the plate. Although iron deficiency can be an issue when children don't eat enough meat, Addison gets iron from fortified cereal and beans. He also likes oranges, bananas, and apples, so he's getting a number of vitamins and minerals.
What to Improve: Addison averaged less than one serving of vegetables per day, leaving his intake of fiber, folate, and potassium on the low side. As with adults, kids need these nutrients to keep the heart and blood vessels healthy and functioning properly.
Realistic Solutions: Addison's mom can use his love of fruit to get in more nutrients and expand his tastes by exposing him to strawberries, mangoes, and papayas. She might also have an easier time getting him to try vegetables if she starts with the sweeter kinds, such as carrots, beets, and butternut squash. She should regularly offer them as well as snap peas, halved grape tomatoes, or sweet potatoes.
To persuade him to taste vegetables that aren't naturally sweet, his mom can get inventive by melting cheese on cauliflower or broccoli or dabbing brown sugar on roasted red peppers. She can also get creative with Addison by making shapes with veggies like asparagus or by putting them on his favorite character plate. She can also try incorporating vegetables into foods that Addison already eats. For example, because he likes pasta, she can puree or finely chop extra vegetables into the sauce. Or for a quick meal, she can buy a ready-made whole wheat pizza crust and hide the finely chopped vegetables underneath the cheese.
For Addison's snack, his mom can offer a vegetable with hummus or salsa. Toddlers love to dip, and it can get them to try something new.
What Worked: "He didn't like the mango I gave him, but he did end up eating some fish with mango sauce. I also added shredded carrots and minced broccoli into macaroni and cheese and he ate it all. Putting cheese on top of cauliflower worked like a charm too. At snack time, though, he only licked the low-fat ranch dip off the green beans and didn't actually eat the vegetable," says Ragsdale.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2006.