Is there any realm of life with your toddler that just works? Because lately, I’m feeling like parenting my two-year-old is just one big mind game. Whether it’s sleep, getting dressed, or buckling the dang car seat, there’s a power struggle to be had.
But today, let’s focus on one area where I was having some serious frustration, but actually found some things that are working! Food.
I’m learning how to play “the game” with her at meal times…and I feel like I’m actually winning. Let’s take back the family dinner, and get that toddler of yours eating something other than cheese and their fourth banana of the day (no? just my kid?).
1. Work with what they do eat.
This tip is number one for good reason. I’ve had a lot of success with getting my 2-year-old to eat a greater variety by adding and hiding veggies, proteins, and healthy fats in foods she already loves. What are some easy go-to meals you can try with your toddler?
- Quesadillas: Easy to add a new type of meat, bean, or even very finely diced veggies.
- Soups: There’s nothing my daughter loves more than soup. Will she eat a steamed carrot or sautéed spinach on her own? No chance. But in a soup, she’ll eat just about any veggie. Colors and textures not cutting it? Try a pureed soup. My daughter especially loves the part where you drink straight from the bowl, no spoon required.
- Smoothies: The possibilities here are endless. Add greens, carrots, and cucumbers easily to banana, fruit and yogurt smoothies. Add nut butters for added fats and calorie content. You might even freeze them with some popsicle molds, and they’ll think it’s dessert.
- Dips: I’ll elaborate more below, but my toddler LOVES hummus. I capitalize on this by making other dips that contains beans or veggies and just tell her it’s a new kind of hummus. Do what you gotta do, right?
- Yogurt: Yogurt is something you can jazz up with all kinds of good stuff to really make it a meal, but it’s still yogurt. We love adding raw oats, ground flax, frozen blueberries, and honey. I’ve even done savory yogurt with cucumber and a dash of olive oil.
- Pasta: Take advantage of the fact that pasta almost always has a sauce, or present the sauce as a ‘dip’. Red sauce can hide other veggies really well. My toddler even started eating pesto when she got to make it with me (see tip 4). I even started cutting the pesto with kale and other greens.
- Baked Goods: There are so many great recipes out there that hide veggies in quick breads, pancakes and muffins. Think zucchini, carrot, banana, apple, and even some greens!
2. Switch up the presentation.
This plays on the fact that your toddler is seeking control and power. Involve them in choosing their plate color or fork. Ask them if they’d like it in a bowl or a plate. Colorful divided plates are always a win in our house. And so are plate sets with favorite characters.
Another way to switch it up? The way you cut or present the actual food. Maybe try doing strips instead of individual bites.
If you’re feeling extra patient? Sit with your child and help them cut each bite, like the way an adult would eat. When I do this with my daughter she will take so many more bites. Ideal for every meal? No. But it’s worth it some nights.
3. Dip away!
Adding a dip or “spread” option to the meal just changed meal time into an activity. For us this started with hummus (for like every veggie). Now, we even give her a little side of salad dressing and she’ll sometimes eat raw veggies or meat dipped in that. She loves ketchup, and you know what, if it means she’ll eat the eggs, I’m okay with that for now.
Other dip ideas:
- Yogurt as a dip for fruit
- Peanut Butter as a dip for fruit
- Ketchup (where appropriate)
- Salad dressing as a dip for meats
- Red Sauce or Meat Sauce as a ‘dip’ for the pasta (also a great place to hide veggies!)
4. Involve them in the process.
This has been another game-changer in terms of getting my two-year-old to eat a greater variety. If she helped make the meal, she is so much more likely to at least give it a try. And I know in our house that’s half the battle. Once she’s tried the food, she usually realizes we’re not actually giving her poison and are recommending it because it’s delicious.
Your toddler might also benefit from tasks like setting the table and clearing the table. She loves putting a napkin and fork at each person’s place and helping bring things to the table. She LOVES to serve everyone too, which isn’t always possible or ideal, but if it gets her to eat then it’s worth it.
5. Take them to the source.
We’re so lucky to live in an area with lots of farms. We also belong to a CSA (farm share) where we pick up veggies every week and get to pick our own for a variety of crops. My daughter eats so many more veggies because of this. Things she wouldn’t eat prior, but then when she sees the plant it came off of, and can try it in the field, it’s way cooler.
I realize this isn’t possible for everyone or for every food. But even just going picking once for apples, blueberries, etc., or going out of your way to visit a farm or friend’s garden will help them make the connection.
Involving your littles in the grocery store will help too. I see this making a difference for us. I let my toddler be involved in finding the apples that look good, or the grapes that aren’t brown. I talk about the beautiful colors and how delicious they are going to be. I say how excited I am to take the specific food home and eat it. Keep it positive and exciting.
Don’t give up!
We totally still have days where all my toddler eats are goldfish and yogurt. But with consistency and patience it is getting better over here. Tailor these tips to your family’s diet, time restraints and tolerance and your toddler will be eating again!
Don’t forget to be patient, and don’t beat yourself up when you throw in the towel and give them the banana (guilty). Above all be a healthy-eating role model for your kid. That’s the most important thing above all.