By Stacey Segal, RD
Toddlers and preschool age kiddos can be tricky to feed. It can be a guessing game. Their tastes seem to change daily, and their unpredictable behavior can be frustrating. Even though you may find this maddening, rest assured it is normal. You also may find that they eat a TON one day and hardly anything the next day. What is that about?
Before you fret, this is not something they are doing on purpose to make you feel crazy. They may be eating less than they used to as babies because their growth actually ‘slows down’ at this age. In fact, toddlers and preschool age kids gain weight at a rate 30-50% slower than infants.
Yes, we all struggle to know if they are eating enough. Remember your job is to offer food regularly and in manageable portions, and their job is to decide how much they can eat at a time.
Here are some tips for making healthy lunches and strategies to get them to actually eat!
1. Keep portions small
Offer bite size food and don’t overwhelm the plate. You can always give second helpings. Keeping portions small reduces the stress some kids feel when presented with too much food at once.
- Put cubes of meat, cheese, or omelet on a wooden skewer (cut sharp end off). Why? Well, food on a stick is always fun, obviously.
- On a single plate, place 2-3 different foods you have in your fridge or pantry. Try to leave some space in between each food, so they don’t mix.
- Let them choose what they put on their own plate. Giving young kids (yes even 2-3yr olds) a little bit of ‘choice’ at mealtime is a wonderful way to build a healthy relationship with food. This approach is a strategy to help children eat more variety.
- Here are some ideas: sliced avocado, strawberries, cheese, beans, green/orange/red veggies, leftover potatoes, chickpeas, kiwi slices, sliced leftover chicken or turkey.
2. Balanced meals to satisfy hunger
Science says that meals with both protein and fat will keep you feeling fuller longer. This is true. But when it comes to kids, a source of complex carbohydrate (with a good amount of fiber) is also important to keep them feeling full, and not asking for a snack 10 min after lunch.
- Not every meal needs to be perfectly balanced. This is not realistic or necessary. Think of a balanced diet over the course of a week rather than aiming for perfection each day. But it is always good to know what the ‘goal’ is, right?
- The goal for a balanced lunch for a toddler or school aged child is to include protein, a source of healthy fat, and a complex carbohydrate.
- Try complex carbohydrates that are nutrient-dense: whole grain bread and pasta, vegetables, peas, lentils, beans, oats, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, farro. Some of these can be pureed, mashed or whole depending on how your little one likes to eat them.
- Try protein foods that are quick to make or that you have in your fridge/pantry: eggs, different types of cheese, peas, chickpeas, lentils, beans, tofu, seed or nut butters, yogurt, milk or milk alternative.
- Try mixing up sources of fat. Avocado oil, olive oil, sunflower seed oil, flaxseed oil, meat, full fat cheese, full fat yogurt, nut and seed butters, and unsalted butter.
- To help make balanced nutrition easier, try making a list of protein foods and complex carbohydrate foods that your family likes. Stick it to a bulletin board or somewhere in your kitchen, so that you can refer to it for lunch ideas when you’re stuck!
3. Easy ways to add veggies and fruit
- Try adding fresh diced tomatoes or ‘cooked from frozen’ veggies to jarred (low sodium/low sugar) tomato sauce. For an even easier, more convenient way of getting veggies in, try using Cerebelly purees warmed gently on the stove as a sauce! Spoon over pasta or brown rice. Then drizzle with your choice of oil. This is an example of a super quick meal, rich in healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and protein!
- Steam raw veggies slightly so they are easier/faster to eat. This way they won’t take ALL of lunch time to consume them. Bet you’re no stranger to watching your toddler chew and chew and chew…. (still chewing).
- Soup! But make it easy and fast. Try mixing a pouch of Cerebelly Pea Basil with a little cream and warm gently on the stove. Serve with whole grain crackers on the side.
4. Fitting in treats at lunchtime
Incorporating treats in a healthy way is something many parents struggle with (including myself). Treats are foods that bring us joy.
This feeling of joy should not be limited to snacks in-between meals. If kids are only allowed treats as snacks in-between meals, then they will learn to only look forward to snack time and not mealtime. It’s really all about how we define what a treat is.
- Define treats as delicious tasting foods. This can be fresh fruit and ‘no added sugar’ snacks. Treats should not equal sugar laden food.
- Offer a small portion of a ‘treat’ along with lunch, a couple times in the week.
- Make healthy treats fun. Our kids pay attention to our own actions and words. Try to talk about how much you love fruit in addition to how much you love a good chocolate chip cookie. Over time, this makes a difference. Keep in mind that for children over the age of 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugar (and avoid for those under age 2).
- “Treats-with-lunch” ideas: frozen yogurt, low sugar muffins, no sugar added snack bars like Cerebelly Smart Bars, fresh or ‘from frozen’ fruit, homemade fruit or fruit/veg popsicles, dried apricots (unsweetened).
Want healthy, easy recipes?
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