Get your toddler to eat healthy with tips from a nutrition expert
by Caroline Fontein
Toddlers are notoriously selective and unpredictable eaters. One day they refuse to eat the steamed broccoli you tried to hide in their macaroni and cheese. The next, plain steamed broccoli is the only thing preventing them from having a total meltdown.
While it’s easy to peg your toddler as being picky and difficult, they’re actually just being smart, according to Dr. Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist, author and expert on diet during pregnancy and baby, toddler, childhood and adult nutrition.
What children eat during their toddler years can have a long-term impact on their food preferences, cognitive functioning and immune responses later in life.
But what does this mean for parents who struggle to get their kids to eat more of the food on their plate than what ends up on the floor (let alone more fruits and vegetables)?
We talked to Dr. Avena to find out. She has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology from Princeton University and recently released a new book, “What to Feed Your Baby & Toddler.” She’s also one of our Scientific Advisory Board members.
Keep reading to get her expert opinion on why good nutrition is so important for toddlers and some tips on how to get your child to try (and enjoy) new foods.
Q: Why is good nutrition so important for toddlers?
A: We have been learning a lot from research studies about the importance of nutrition during the first 1000 days of life (from conception through age 2). What children eat during the toddler years can have a long-term impact on their food preferences, cognitive functioning, and immune responses later in life.
Q: How do toddler’s nutritional needs change over time?
A: Toddlers can be selective eaters. I don’t like to use the term “picky” because toddlers aren’t being difficult by being choosy about what they eat…they are actually being smart.
Neophobia (the fear of new things) when it comes to food it a biological response that is hardwired in humans—we are leery of new smells, textures and tastes because they could make us sick, and we don’t know until we try them.
As a result, many toddlers are resistant to try new foods. This means that many toddlers don’t get all of the micronutrients that they need to stay healthy.
Micronutrient deficiency can have acute effects, such as irritability or tiredness, as well as chronic effects, like weakened immune system, or growth inhibition.
The toddler years are a period of rapid growth, where there are bound to be gaps in nutritional needs being met, which is why it is important to ensure that they are getting the right balance with a multivitamin supplement.
Q: How do the foods that toddlers eat impact their health and wellness? How does this impact the toddler’s taste preferences?
A: Exposure to foods during the toddler years can encourage exploration of other novel foods. The key to having a healthy diet is variety. Toddlers are notorious for having a few favorite foods, which can limit the amount of variety in their diet.
Encouraging toddlers to try different foods can help them to learn about different tastes and to trust that trying new foods can be a fun and interesting experience. This will help as they age and are faced with more opportunities in which they need to make food choices on their own (without Mom or Dad coaching them).
Q: What do you recommend for toddler’s who don't eat certain foods because they have a food allergy or practice a vegan (or other) restrictive diet? How can parents make sure their child still gets all the recommended nutrients?
A: Focusing on non-allergenic foods is a good way to go if allergies are a concern. It is relatively rare for there to be allergies to fruits or vegetables (although not unheard of).
If you can try a variety of fruits and vegetables with your toddler, and repeat access to them (8-10 exposures is what studies suggest is needed to encourage a baby to accept a new taste), you can increase the diversity and balance in their diet.
For those who have allergies or sensitivity, it is best to consult with a pediatrician and work with a professional to get ideas for foods that your child can handle. It might be necessary to use a supplement.
If your toddler is vegan, they can have a healthy diet, but it may be necessary to supplement for B12 and iron, as these nutrients can be hard to get enough of on a vegan diet.
Q: When is a good time to start thinking about taking a toddler supplement?
A: Once a baby transitions off of breast milk or formula, they need to get their nutrients from food. And if your baby has been accustomed to drinking their nutrition, it can be hard to make up all of those nutrients in 3 meals and a few snacks (especially when toddlers can be unpredictable in how hungry they are, or how interested they are in sitting down to eat).
I think that once your baby is no longer drinking formula or breast milk, it is a good idea to think about a nutritional supplement to make up for the things that they might not be getting from foods just yet.
Q: What do you think sets SmartyPants toddler supplements apart from other brands?
A: Toddler age is tough for supplements, because kids are too young to take a pill, and many parents want to transition away from bottles and formula, and encourage the “big kid” mindset in their child.
SmartyPants Toddler gummies are great because they are small enough for toddlers to handle, and they taste great. Kids want to take them. It’s a great way to introduce to them at a young age why it’s important to make sure you eat well and take your vitamins in order to grow up to be big, strong, and healthy.
While there’s no guaranteed method for getting your toddler to embrace new foods, consistency can help. Try incorporating fruits and vegetables into every meal to help them learn that healthy eating is a normal part of their everyday routine.
You can also use a “try it” bowl with every dinner where they can sample what the adults are eating. You don’t need to associate any reward or penalty with it. Instead, it can be used to foster exploration and get them used to and excited about trying new things.
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Caroline Fontein is the Editor and Content Manager for SmartyPants Vitamins. When she's not writing about the latest and greatest in gummy nutrition, she loves rollerblading (it's a thing), long walks on the beach (with her dog) and wine tasting (sometimes the whole bottle).