Tips for Eating With a Toddler (Or, How I Got My Kid to Love Kale)
Hey there! Happy Thursday to ya. This week has felt like a long one over here—I’ve actually had a lot of work to do this week, preparing for our return to school. Syllabi have been created…independent studies have been approved…e-mails have been sent. Good times.
We’re also knee-deep in toddlerhood over here—which means more random tantrums, more declarations of “I do NOT!”, and the demand to wear her Cinderella dress ALL. THE. TIME.
Even though Lila has her fair share of two year-old moments (when told that she has to take a bath or put away toys, she now replies “Why are you DOING this to meeeeee???”), when it comes to meal-time, we’re actually doing really well. I was preparing myself for the toddler phase of eating only string cheese and hot dogs, but…it hasn’t come. Well, not yet anyway. And frankly, I don’t foresee it coming in the immediate future, or at all. Because for a kid to only eat string cheese and hot dogs, you have to only give them string cheese and hot dogs. We’ve taken a bit of a “tough love” approach when it comes to eating with Lila—as advised by our pediatrician, we don’t give her special foods or meals. We don’t resort to “easy” foods if we think we’re having something she might not love. And while this approach can have its repercussions in the short run (we’ve spent a few meals in tears, definitely, and she certainly has gone to bed hungry), in the long run, I think it has paid off immensely. Here are some of the “food rules” that we’re hoping will get us through toddlerhood:
No Special Meals. Seriously.
If we’re having kale and steak, Lila is having kale and steak. If we’re having tofu curry, Lila is having tofu curry. Does she always eat it? Not always. But she tries almost everything. And if she tries it and hates it—well, if she’s hungry enough, she’ll eat it anyway. And if she isn’t very hungry, it will stay on her plate and she’ll eat well at the next meal. Something I’ve had to get used to with having a toddler instead of a baby is that damn it, they remember things! Don’t you hate that? They remember that you promised to take them to the park, or watch a movie after naptime, or eat a cookie before bed. And they definitely remember if, upon telling you that they don’t want kale and steak, you give them a hot dog instead. By giving a toddler a “replacement meal” anytime there’s something on the plate that they don’t like or want, I think you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of “We’re eating this, but you can have that.” “We’re eating vegetable soup, but you can have a pb&j.” “We’re eating chicken, but you can have fruit.” And the truth is, toddlers, even the most adventurous ones, are picky bastards. If you give them the power of choosing their own special dinner instead of what everyone is eating, you’re heading down a slippery slope. Lila isn’t some special fairy child who would choose organic greens at every meal, if given the choice. No, if given the choice, she would choose chocolate chip cookies and goldfish, just like most other kids her age. Which is why I don’t give her that choice.
Beyond just not having the time or energy or, frankly, patience to give her a separate meal, I also think that giving a child something “safe” to eat while the rest of the family has a different dinner teaches kids some lessons that I’m not too crazy about. First of all, I think it rewards complaining. Lila whines and complains enough about wanting to wear her princess dress every day; I don’t need to hear complaining at meal time too. I also think it teaches kids that they should like everything—that if something is unpleasant or unlikeable to them, then the parent is always going to be right there to swoop in, take away the offensive food, and replace it with something the kid approves of. You know what? Not everything in life is likeable. I hated math, but I still had to do it. Not everything in life is tasty. And sometimes, you just have to sit there with something you don’t like. Broccoli isn’t always going to turn into a hot dog, and I want Lila to learn that lesson early.
Don’t assume you know what your kid likes and doesn’t like.
This is a big one for me. Sometimes I think about how incredibly exciting it must be to be a toddler—everything, literally everything, is new to you. I find myself constantly surprised by Lila’s tastes—certain foods or meals I thought for sure she’d love, she ends up not eating at all. And sometimes, meals that I serve thinking she won’t even touch get wolfed down with a smile and demand for “more!”
A few weeks ago, we ate a soup with ground turkey and kale. I thought that Lila would probably end up just eating the turkey, and most likely wouldn’t touch the kale. Imagine my surprise when she began shoving piece after piece of the kale in her mouth, asking again and again for “More kale please!”
You know who will never eat kale? The kid who never has the chance to because his or her parents have already deemed it something that they wouldn’t like. Give your kids a chance—they might surprise you.
We had to learn this one the hard way. During the school year, Lila was eating a pretty big snack with her nanny—usually something like popcorn or goldfish—and then by dinner time, she was so full from the snack still that she wouldn’t eat dinner. We’ve tried, recently, to make snacks a bit smaller and earlier in the afternoon, and that has made a big difference in what she eats at dinner. If Lila comes to the table hungry, there’s a much greater chance that she’ll eat whatever is on her plate instead of turning up her nose and simply waiting for the next meal.
Make food an active event.
We take Lila to the farmers’ market every week—or at least we try to. When we’re there, we’re big on taking the samples that most booths offer and allowing her to try everything—last time, she tried chocolate goat cheese, smoked bacon pimento cheese, and a bite of a delicious heirloom tomato. Then, as we strolled, she snacked on tiny cherry tomatoes right out of a paper bag. Do we shop at the grocery store? Of course. But I want Lila to know that the grocery store isn’t the only option, and that food doesn’t magically appear on those cold, white shelves. I want her to understand that food is grown by someone—that it is a result of hard work and love. We recently planted coriander seeds in our yard, and Lila has loved watching the cilantro grow taller and taller, from tiny sprouts to the full-sized herb. We also took a trip to a nearby goat farm this summer, where Lila played with the goats and then enjoyed goat’s milk ice cream. I think it’s fun for her (and for us!) to make all of these connections to the food she eats, rather than just shoveling it down without a question or who or what it came from.
Don’t strive for perfection.
Lest I make it sound like Lila is maintaining a steady diet of heirloom vegetables, quinoa, and organic meats, let me be clear: we eat junk food. She has goldfish nearly every day. We eat dessert. We eat pizza. After eating those cherry tomatoes at the farmers’ market, she also enjoyed a chocolate chip cookie the size of her head. There are days when she doesn’t eat a single vegetable. But—and this is a big but—that isn’t every day. If she doesn’t eat a vegetable on Monday, I do my best to get her eating some on Tuesday. You can’t be perfect. Toddlers are going to go through picky phases—they just are. But I’ve learned that instead of giving in to the picky phase, I hold out—as hard as that might be. I hold out, and keep filling her plate with variety…and eventually, what I’ve found is that her curiosity (or her hunger, ha) wins out.
Eating with a toddler isn’t always easy—but it can be incredibly fun and, for a food-lover, rewarding. I do believe that you have to invest time in teaching your kids to eat. And I know—some kids (and some adults) are super picky. But I think you can either indulge in that pickiness, or you can fight to overcome it. I think we’re fighting the good fight at our table.
If you have kids, what kind of eater are they? Any tips for toddler and/or kid eating?