Meal Planning with a Toddler (or Any Picky Eater)
"I'm not hungry." 10 seconds later, "I want dinner. No, I don't like that." Five minutes later, "Can I have more please?"
If you have kids you've probably been through this scenario before. The indecisiveness of a toddler, the roller coaster appetite of a growing child, or the temperamental preferences of a tween can turn meal time into a frenzy of arguments and food fights. While these six tips aren't guaranteed to work, they can at least get you started toward a more relaxing dinnertime sitting around the kitchen table with the same meal for all, no matter what each person's needs and tastes are.
- Don't be a short-order cook. Make ONE meal for your family.
A lot of my clients are women and report cooking two meals every night (at which my head nearly explodes): one for the adults and/or older children and a second option for the littlest mouths usually consisting of some "super nutritious" meal like mac 'n cheese or chicken nuggets. Include children from a very young age, starting at 1 ½ – 2 years old in meal planning and increase their involvement as they grow and mature. Offer them a few of their favorite options each week as the (as in the one and only) meal for the entire family.
After a few nights of everyone eating the same meal, most kids usually adapt. Stay strong and don't give in to offering a different option. If they decide not to eat, that's fine and part of the process. Don't make it into a big deal either. The more you plead with them to eat, or try one bite, the worse the power struggle gets. If they're hungry, they will eat. Kids, especially small children, are great at honoring their internal physical cues for hunger and fullness.
- Serve a cooked vegetable and raw vegetable.
Texture is a big deal to kids, and even some adults. Offer enough variety that they have options to choose from.
- Sneak in vegetables they don't "think" they like.
I add shredded zucchini to marinara sauce and casserole/mixed dishes often to get in a few extra veggies for the entire family. I also don't omit onions, peppers, or mushrooms, three veggies my daughter used to like and no longer does. Eventually she'll get tired of picking every last piece out of her meal or realize she likes them after all. If it's easy, I'll leave certain ingredients out of part of the meal for her, but I don't cook an entirely separate meal to suite her pickiness.
- Offer a healthy alternative.
If they try the meal and genuinely don't care for it, have an easy back-up or cook a little extra of one meal you know they like to have leftovers on hand.
- Lead by example.
You can't expect your kids to eat their veggies if you don't. Enough said.
- Don't make it a habit of rewarding healthy eating.
It's tempting and easy to do to entice finicky eaters to eat their meal: "If you finish dinner, you can have a cookie." Every once in a while is alright, but doing it on a regular basis can create a problem and make a child think they deserve a treat for eating healthy. Along the same lines is encouraging a child to clean their plate. Just as we shouldn't clean our plates just because there's food on it, we shouldn't encourage our children to do this either.
The advantages of cooking one meal for everyone may take some extra planning and might be hard in the beginning if everyone's used to getting what they ask for, but they will pay off to save you time, money, and create a household of healthy eaters.