Picky toddlers, picky tween-agers, we’ve all got one or know one. On one day my toddler will sit on the couch chomping on raw broccoli while watching The Wonder Pets, the very next day she screams at the site of the stalky green and hates The Wonder Pets. It’s just another day in the life of a tiny human. And as tiny humans go, some love to eat and others simply don’t, my 3 year old does not.
When Sistilia first made the move to solids, I was thrilled. Not only was it a change in our daily grind, it was a chance for me to lay the groundwork for what I hope will be a lifetime of healthy eating. A gift my mother gave me, that I believe has fueled much of my life. When Sis was six months through her first year I steamed and pureed and mashed and mixed every fruit and veggie you could think of. Sis loved it! I raised my hands in victory as I whipped up ricotta and peach treats, watching my sweet angel as she devoured avocados, savored spinach, reveled in raspberries, and munched on mushrooms. Look at my girl’s palate, I thought to myself as I patted my own back.
Then she turned two. Defeat came quickly as every food received a boycott, some even got thrown across the room, others were smashed in fists of rage. We call this the dark period and during that time she basically survived on bread; at least it was fresh, Italian bread.
Lucky for me, Sistilia’s pediatrician, Dr. Dina DiMaggio has the food game on lock! So much so that she, along with Dr. Anthony Porto wrote a book about it: The Pediatrician’s Guide to Feeding Babies and Toddlers. In this new world where everyone is an expert, it’s nice to actually have real experts and real parents give you real advice with practical tips. Their book has easy to follow recipes and best of all great ways to engage your toddler into eating without them even realizing that you are totally Jedi Mind Tricking them.
I recently asked Drs DiMaggio & Porto to share some of their favorite tips on working with your picky eater, to help pave the way to victory while maintaining your sanity as you maneuver through the toddler years. We also took one of my favorite recipes, Baked Polenta Fingers and revamped it into a healthy, fun, and veggie fueled meal!
Check out their tips below and try our Baked Polenta Fingers, Sis and I made them and we both cleared our plates.
Five Tips for your Picky Toddler from Drs DiMaggio & Porto
As toddlers are gaining autonomy, they often test their independence by eating or not eating the meal you set before them. It is completely normal for your toddler to love yogurt and fruit one week and have nothing to do with the same exact yogurt the next week. The majority of picky eaters are eating sufficient amounts of calories (despite what it may seem) and growing and developing well, so there is no reason to be alarmed at these feeding behaviors. Fortunately, these behaviors are passing, although they may seem never ending! As parents who have once survived this phase here are the top five things you need to know —and also times when you should worry that your child’s picky eating may be more than just a normal phase.
1. Toddlers typically become more ‘picky’ around 15-18 months.
It is normal for babies to become more selective and only prefer a few foods, such as dairy and carbohydrates, at this age. Though children may rapidly grow from birth to 12 months, children at this age really don’t need very much food, since their growth slows at this stage.
In general, by age two, toddlers should be eating three healthy meals and two snacks a day, with the average two-year-old (boys and girls) requiring about 1,000 calories a day.
2. Keep mealtimes stress-free (no matter how challenging they are to you).
We love Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility model. Ellen is a registered dietitian and family therapist who pioneered this evidence based model to help keep mealtimes stress-free. With this model, it is important to understand your role and your child’s role in meal time. Your role as a parent is to determine the what, when and where of feeding, including making food, offering food and drinks only at meal or snack times (besides water), leading by example, and not catering to children. Your child’s role is to determine how much they will eat.
Most children will then eat the amount they need, innately regulating their own food intake.
3. Keep mealtimes interesting and consistent.
Try to involve your child when preparing meals, have them go grocery shopping with you and try to make cooking and eating fun! Some fun tips include:
Using cookie cutters, dipping sauces, make miniature or bite-sized portions by using mini-muffin trays, colorful plates, or add natural food coloring to food.
Pick a color day. For example, on “pink days,” eat beets, strawberries, salmon, and watermelon.
Encourage your child to try new foods many times. Offer the same food in a variety of ways including steamed, roasted, with a favorite dipping sauce, or have your toddler make her own fun food creations.
If you are stressed, your child will feel it, and the meal may turn into a stressful experience for everyone! Don’t give up or become frustrated. Kids should be exposed to food a dozen of times and often grow to like foods that they initially avoided. Try offering small portions of the new food with old favorites.
Don’t become a short-order cook at mealtime as offering many options may further encourage picky behaviors. Offer one to two healthy choices, and if rejected, just try again tomorrow. Toddlers will be okay and will not starve if they skip a meal once in a while.
Minimize distractions at mealtimes, such as television and tablets.
Serve meals and snacks in a routine way, preferably at a table with caregivers and family members, and avoid snacks or sweetened caloric beverages, such as juices and sodas, between those times.
4. Be a role model.
Model the behavior you would like to see in your children. If you expect your kids to eat a plate of veggies, you should also serve yourself veggies. I remember when I would come home late from work, how my son would ask to eat the lettuce and veggies from my salad. His interest remained even when I was eating less healthy foods and he would grab French fries from my plate as well.
5. Monitor your child's growth.
If you are concerned about your child’s intake, whether you think your child is eating too much or not enough, speak to your pediatrician. Your child’s pediatrician will plot your child’s height and weight on a growth chart to determine if they are following, give or take, a consistent percentile. If your child is not growing along a consistent curve, is not gaining weight as expected for his age, or has dropped significantly in weight percentiles, it may be necessary for your child’s pediatrician to assess her nutritional intake and take a history to decide what further testing, if any, may be needed.
Broccoli Polenta Bites
Serves 4 - 6
prep time 15 minutes (+ 2 hours to chill)
Cook time 15 minutes
1 cup polenta (I'm a big fan of Colavita Instant Polenta)
2 cups low sodium chicken stock
1.5 cups water
4 cups finely chopped broccoli (can be replaced with spinach, asparagus or kale)
Wash and finely chop your broccoli, add 2 cups of stock and one and a half cups of water to a medium pot, lightly salt and bring to a boil, add your broccoli and let boil for about 3 minutes. Using a whisk, slowly pour in your polenta while stirring constantly to avoid clumps. Once all your polenta is in, switch to a wooden spoon and lower the heat. Stir for about 5 - 7 minutes and remove pot from heat and allow it to sit for 5 minutes. Drizzle pan lightly with olive oil and spread to coat, pour your polenta into the pan and using a spatula or wooden spoon press it down and even, polenta should be about 1” thick. Cover and place in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 400
Once the polenta is firm, cut it into 8ths, creating little bite size “fingers.” Next place parchment paper on a baking sheet and lay polenta squares an inch apart, bake for 15 minutes or until lightly golden.
Pizza Style Dipping Sauce
prep time 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 20oz Jar of Passata or pureed tomatoes
1 tsp fresh oregano
1 tsp olive oil
salt & pepper
Heat 1 tsp of olive oil in a medium saucepan, add garlic and saute on low for 4 minutes. Next add your passata or pureed tomatoes and simmer for a few minutes. Add oregano, salt, and pepper and reduce heat, cooking for about 20 minutes.
TAKE NOTE: These make a great packed lunch and if you want to add some zing, add a little parmigiano or pecorino sprinkled on top!
Special thanks to Janet Kopchinski RD @bewellihs for analyzing our recipe and helping us get it to where we wanted it to be!
Each serving of the recipe = 1 carb and 1 veggie serving for a toddler.