If you’re looking for tips for feeding toddlers, here’s my approach as a Registered Dietitian. Spoiler alert- sometimes I serve two different meals!
This post has been a long time coming. Literally. It’s been in my drafts folder for at least 6 months. I originally came up with the post topic on my own…but it kept getting pushed to the back burner. And then a few of you started asking questions. And then I got more questions. Bottom line is, people notice (especially those of you who follow me on Instagram) when you don’t feed your kids the same thing you’re eating.
So I figured it’s about time for me to dive in and explain my thinking a little bit further. The short and sweet answer is this:
I believe that I can serve healthy foods to my kids without having to serve them the exact same meal I’m having.
I realize that this may not be the most popular opinion, especially coming from a Registered Dietitian. And let me be clear that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making one meal and serving everyone the same thing. I know it works for a lot of people, I understand how it can be helpful for picky eaters and I think it’s a great idea if it works for you and your family.
But I don’t think it’s the only option. And right now, I don’t think it’s the best choice for our family. As I share a little bit more about why, please remember that this is MY view about what works best for MY family. Every family is different and it’s possible that you will disagree with my opinion or think that what I do isn’t right for your family. THAT’S OK. I’m simply sharing my opinion in case it does help someone else out there whose thoughts or family are similar to mine. It’s also possible that my view will shift as my kids get older.
So, here we go:
Yes, I believe in Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility when it comes to feeding children. The division of responsibility in feeding encourages you to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide.
At this age, it’s my responsibility to provide food for my kids. It’s their choice what and how much of it they eat.
Right now, this topic mostly applies to Squish, who is 3. Little Miss is still a bit too young for me to put some of these rules about having seconds, etc into play. But in the coming months, when she reaches that point, I’ll do the same thing with her.
My general overarching policy is that I decide what to put on his plate for dinner. If he doesn’t want to eat it, that’s fine. But he doesn’t get anything else until breakfast. Yes, there are nights when he goes to bed after eating only one or two bites of dinner. No, I don’t freak out about it. Kids are very good at eating intuitively and if he skips dinner, I trust that he’ll make up for it the next day or later in the week. I also often remind myself is that dinner is typically his worst meal. He is a very good eater at breakfast, and usually at lunch. He also eats snacks. By the time dinner rolls around, he’s just not always that into it. And that’s fine.
When it comes down to it, the reason why I sometimes serve him something different is because it’s not that hard for me. And I would rather focus on the actual act of family dinner and us eating together vs. the what we’re physically eating.
You guys know I’m a fan of food prep and although I don’t prep a lot of whole dinners, I do often prep components and that makes it easier for me to throw together a quick meal for him without any real extra effort on my part. So no, I don’t advise spending hours in the kitchen making two totally separate meals…but there are ways to serve different meals without a lot of extra work:
For example: Perhaps one night my husband and I are having taco salads with ground turkey taco meat, lettuce, rice, tomatoes, corn, black beans etc. Squish is not a huge fan of ground meat unless it’s made into a meatball. He also doesn’t love lettuce, or tomatoes, or corn or black beans. He does love tacos and quesadillas and he likes chicken. So maybe on that night, I would make taco salads for us and for him I would use some of the chicken that I shredded or baked during my food prep to make a hummus and chicken and cheese quesadilla, with a few black beans added in. Or I might make him a ground turkey and cheese quesadilla with a few beans to make it more likely that he would try the turkey.
Or say we’re having chicken curry, which he has tasted multiple times and tends to not be a fan of….I might give him some rice, a small piece of naan that we’re having, a little curry and then a couple meatballs that I had made during food prep over the weekend and some carrots with ranch.
In the photo above, hubby and I were having a skillet dinner with roasted potatoes, corn, peppers and onions, summer squash, pesto and shrimp. Squish is not a fan of any of those things. So he got strawberries, which he loves, noodles (which he loves) covered in pesto (which is relatively new to him but he eats occasionally), a little bit from our skillet, plus some parmesan chicken tenders that I made earlier in the week while doing food prep and just had to pull out of the fridge, cut up and serve.
The bottom line is: yes, sometimes I make something and all of us eat the same thing. Sometimes I make something for hubby and I and give Squish something different using stuff I already had on hand (along with a taste of ours). And you know what? Sometimes I make something for my husband that he likes…and it’s not something I like….so I eat something totally different. And that’s ok too. It works for us and I still feel good about what my family is eating, without feeling pressured to always have everyone eat the same thing.
One thing I do think is important if you take this approach: You have to work hard at continuing to introduce your kids to new foods and a variety of flavors, cooking methods, etc. I don’t recommend just giving up and serving them chicken nuggets every single night for dinner because they don’t seem to like anything you’re making. There are definitely nights that Squish doesn’t eat what I serve him, even if it’s different from what we’re eating. And that’s ok. I work hard to make sure I introduce him to different flavors, spices, vegetables, meats etc, even if he happens to try them at a different time than I eat them.
Since I am still regularly introducing him to new foods, here are some things I focus on when I serve him things I’m not sure he’ll love:
- I always make sure there’s something on his plate he likes
- I focus a little harder on making sure he’s hungry. If he eats a huge breakfast and lunch, doesn’t get much physical activity and has several snacks on a certain day, then that’s probably not the best day for me to serve him something brand new for dinner…because he probably won’t be that hungry and he might not eat it even if he does like it. If it’s a day where he eats breakfast, goes to school and runs around all morning, eats a smaller lunch, takes a long nap and only has a small snack before dinner, chances are he’ll be hungry and also more willing to try something new on his plate. Or sometimes I’ll try something new at breakfast or lunch instead of dinner.
- I let him help make it. I try to do this all the time but especially for new recipes.
- I don’t make a big deal about it. I don’t say things like “ohhhh we’re having this brand new thing for dinner…i hope you like it….yada yada”. I just serve it the same way I serve every meal.
- I often mix it with something he likes. If I want him to try peas, I might mix them into mac and cheese, which he loves. Or if I want him to try ground beef or beans, I’ll put them in a quesadilla because he loves tortillas and cheese.
- I’m willing to keep things separate. If I want him to try a chicken and noodle dish with some kind of asian sauce, he likely won’t touch it if i serve it all mixed together, but if I separate out the noodles, the chicken and the veggies, he might try at least one part.
Here are some questions I’ve gotten on this topic:
What’s your policy if he wants seconds?
If there is fruit on his plate, he will always eat that first. And he almost always asks for more. In order to get more fruit, he has to eat everything on his plate (including vegetables). If he asks for seconds of the main dish, I give it to him, even if he hasn’t eaten his vegetables. If he asks for thirds of the main dish, I tell him no, until he eats his vegetables.
I will never force him to eat everything on his plate. But I won’t give in and give him more fruit just because he’s still hungry and doesn’t want to eat his vegetables. (For example in the photo above of the deconstructed chicken philly sandwich…he immediately ate the cheesy bread and orange, didn’t touch his peppers and ate some of his chicken. He asked for more bread and more orange, both of which I said no to, unless he wanted to eat the rest of his chicken and his peppers. He decided to be done for the night.
Do you make him take a no thank you bite?
No. I encourage him to try a bite of everything on his plate but I never force him to.
Why do you sometimes serve dessert with the meal?
I work hard to not put dessert on a pedestal. I firmly believe that restricting something only makes you want it more. Does that mean he gets dessert every night after dinner? No. Sometimes I include a donut with breakfast or a cookie with dinner. I don’t point it out. I don’t make a big deal about it. Sometimes he chooses to eat it immediately, but often, he’ll eat almost all his meal before even touching the dessert. If we make cookies in the afternoon, I let him eat one. In other words, my own approach to healthy eating is that cookies, desserts and other sweets can easily be included and the same goes for my son.
Why do you feed your baby something different if she rejects the first thing you give her?
First of all, my daughter is a very good eater. She’s almost 14 months and she eats A LOT. She’s not very picky (similar to her brother at that age) but I think that will come later. She’s also still learning. For the past several months, my focus has been on exposing her to a variety of foods and providing food for her to eat. Soon, she’ll reach the age where she’s consciously deciding not to eat something just because she’d rather have something else (ie getting pickier). At that point, I’ll start taking the same approach that I take with him, where she can eat what I give her or not eat until morning. However, right now, I’m happy to give her another option so that she’s eating something. Right now, that means occasionally giving her a different protein source, some extra vegetables or some more healthy fats to help her grow and develop.
How do I choose what meals to make during the week?
I do cook a lot of dinners on the fly (hence the upcoming ebook) but in general, I try over the course of the week to cook some kid-friendly recipes that I know everyone will like, some that I can easily separate into different components Squish can eat the separate parts and hubby and I can eat it mixed together and one or two that I don’t think he’ll eat, in which case I’ll serve him something different, but also put a small serving of what we’re having on his plate.
Do you serve your kids foods you don’t like?
Yes. This is something I work really hard at. I was world’s pickiest eater for 25 years and even though I’ve gotten a lot better, I still lean towards the side of picky eating and there are a lot of things I don’t like. That doesn’t mean my kids won’t like them. But it COULD, if I don’t expose them to these things. Luckily, my husband is NOT a picky eater. So I often cook things for him that I don’t particularly like. And I use those opportunities to serve those foods to my kids as well, without showing my bias or opinion, so that they can form their own opinions. This includes everything from vegetables like asparagus and cauliflower, to meat like beef.
Why do you keep serving stuff they don’t like?
It’s a well-known fact that it can take a crazy number of times being exposed to a food before a kid is willing to try it or decides they like it. I almost always give them a little of what we’re eating even if I don’t think they’ll like it. Squish has definitely gotten pickier and will loudly tell me “I don’t like that” or “I don’t want that”. My response is “that’s fine, but I’m going to put it on your plate. You don’t have to eat it, but it’s going to stay on your plate and you’re welcome to try it if you want to.”
Whew! Ok I think that’s it for now. Lemme know if you have questions!