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Tempting Toddler Taste Buds

Hey Jessica – this one’s for
you! Sorry it took so long for me to cover this topic – you
know how it is.

When Maddie was a baby and doing the whole pureed food thing, I
thought I was Magic Mommy: she’d eat pretty much anything I
gave her. I was pureeing broccoli, spinach, asparagus – you
name it, she’d good-naturedly allow me to spoon it into her
mouth. As per the doctor’s instructions, I was giving Maddie
a protein, a fruit, and a vegetable at every meal (with the
occasional starch thrown in as accompaniment) and I naively assumed
we’d continue this way for the rest of her life. I had hazy,
romantic visions of a four-year-old Maddie placidly eating her
lentils and brussel sprouts without comment, and honestly
couldn’t see what all the fuss was amongst my friends: picky
eaters? What??

Even when Madeleine moved to the
finger-foods stage, she remained a fairly easy eater. I remember
going on vacation with her when she was fifteen months old and
never ordering a separate meal for her; I’d simply share my
plate with Maddie, much to the wait staff’s amazement. I
vowed to continue offering her a healthy, varied palate of food,
certain we’d continue on the same track and she’d grow
up loving leafy greens.

I wish I could point to the day when all that changed, but
it’s been a slow, steady progression towards Finickyville.
When Maddie turned two we began allowing her to have sugar about
once a month, and when she turned two and a half we introduced her
to chocolate. And the older she got, the more I allowed the
nutrition-light starches in her diet, occasionally serving pasta or
something. I figured it’s better for her to eat it some and
learn where it fits into a healthy eating habit than to be Psycho
Mommy, never give her sugar, and end up raising a kid who sneaks
Ding Dongs into the house in a shoe box. But now that she’s
older, Maddie eats a cookie or some sort of treat nearly every
week, and thinks the best meal in the world is macaroni and cheese
with mango on the side. I still serve a fruit and vegetable at
every meal, and keep a tight rein on nutrition-light snacks, but
she definitely loves them anyway. Which just goes to show you
– all kids love eating crap.

Sometime after they begin eating finger foods – somewhere
between one and two years – your kids go from (relatively)
passive consumers to active participants in the meal planning, and
you will spend much of your energy trying to come up with creative
and fun ways to entice your toddlers to eat healthy. Here are some
ways to make this easier.

First, keep in mind that kids want to be just like you.
Sorry, but they want whatever is on your plate, which means they
notice if you’re giving them Wheaties and you’re eating
Cocoa Puffs. So the best way for you to raise healthy eaters is to
model that for them. Maddie has a few choices for breakfast –
plain yogurt with granola, cereal and milk, oatmeal, breakfast bar,
or scrambled eggs – and while I may not eat the same choice
at the same time, I always choose from the same menu available to
her. That way there’s no curiosity, and when she begs a bite
from my plate (which she invariably does) I don’t worry about
having to say “no”. For lunch I fix the same thing for
both of us, and at the dinner table she’ll see my plate
looking exactly like hers – same veggies, same fruit,
everything. And the most sure-fire way to get her to eat a salad is
to fix one for myself and not make one for her – she’ll
be begging for bite after bite within five minutes.

I’m not saying you can never eat differently than your kids
– I will sometimes eat a protein bar with nuts in it, or
peanut butter with an apple, and she knows she can’t have it
because she can’t have nuts yet and is ok with that. And
Brian drinks diet Coke which of course Maddie isn’t allowed
to have. It’s good for kids to learn that they don’t
always get everything adults get. But the bottom line is that they
want to be just like you, so the best way to get them to eat their
broccoli is for you to eat yours.

Second, know that for toddlers, texture is key. Experiment
with preparing something a different way and you’ll probably
hit on one winner. Maddie doesn’t love cooked carrots, but
enjoys the crispness of biting into a raw one. A burger burned on
the grill may get rejected, while ground beef cooked up on the
stove won’t because it lacks the crispy outside. At this age,
it’s tough to get most toddlers to eat protein, and
it’s mostly due to texture. Maddie’s getting better
about it, but for a long time she wouldn’t eat much chicken
at all. I find chicken goes down better when it’s shredded
– think soft tacos or casseroles – rather than in
“rubbery” chunks. And ground beef or turkey was a
bigger hit than pieces of steak. If I were making hummus, I’d
know I didn’t puree the chickpeas long enough if Maddie
turned it down: sixty extra seconds in the food processor removed
the grittiness and made it “edible”. My girlfriend Abby
has a vegetarian chili recipe that you’d swear didn’t
have vegetables in it, and it’s all in the way the textures
are presented.

Decide early on if you want to get
creative with your meals
. Here’s what I mean:
there’s a slew of cookbooks out there designed to help you
“sneak” healthy food into kid-friendly meals (my
favorite is href="http://www.amazon.com/Sneaky-Chef-Strategies-Healthy-Favorite/dp/0762430753/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1207541514&sr=8-1"
target="_blank">The Sneaky Chef
) Pureed cauliflower
goes into macaroni and cheese, blueberry juice slips into chocolate
muffins for extra nutrients, that sort of thing. The theory is that
you can’t change what kids like, but you can trick those
vitamins into them anyway.

I’m a dabbler in this, but not in a big way. I feel that
I’m not doing my girls a big favor if I raise them this way.
Sure I’m slipping them nutrients short-term, but
long–term I’m teaching them to choose mac ‘n
cheese every night for dinner, and I guarantee you the lady in the
college cafeteria isn’t putting cauliflower into the cheese
sauce. So I have used some of the recipes as a way to make snacks a
bit healthier, but by and large I stick with trying to get my girls
accustomed to “grown-up” meals. If you’re pulling
your hair out over trying to keep some vitamins on the table,
though, I encourage you to check these cookbooks out. (And keep in
mind my oldest is two-and-a-half: check back when she’s five
and you’ll probably see a steady rotation of mac ‘n
cheese and spaghetti and pizza because I’ll have given up.)

Instead of hiding healthy stuff in food, try taking a kid-friendly
meal and taking it one simple step higher – go for the
baby step overhauls
. Here’s a great example: Saturday
night is burger night in our house. That’s a cheeseburger and
bun, French fries, and coleslaw. But I make the burger with a
multi-grain bun, ground turkey, and good cheddar cheese instead of
American slices. For the fries, I do baked sweet-potato fries
– you can cut your own or buy a bag in the frozen section of
most good grocery stores. And then for coleslaw, pick up a bag of
the pre-cut broccoli slaw mix: it’s shredded broccoli,
carrots, and cabbage, and tastes like regular slaw. Throw on some
sunflower seeds and apples and you’ve got a pretty
well-rounded meal for a night of burgers and fries. For another
example, Maddie eats a ham and cheese sandwich nearly every day for
lunch – it’s her absolute favorite. But here again, she
eats it on twelve-grain bread, with good cheese and high-quality
ham instead of a processed ham loaf. And last example –
yogurt. Both my girls love it, and we buy plain yogurt by the
quart. I puree fresh or frozen fruit, freeze it in ice cube trays,
and defrost a couple cubes at a time to mix into the yogurt. We cut
out a huge amount of sugar, add fiber, and keep those taste buds
used to more natural taste. You don’t have to make it
different, just better. There are lots of ways to step it up easily
– whole-grain pastas that taste like white, brown-rice pasta,
multi-grain breads – just try working a few into your
family’s food vocabulary and you’ll be doing well.

Even desserts can get the tiny overhaul. One of Maddie’s
treats is a popsicle – consisting solely of pureed fruit.
Throw a banana, some pineapple, and some mango in the food
processor, pour into molds, and freeze. She can’t get enough
of them. But for those times we allow her the “real”
treats, I go as good quality as I can. We make chocolate chip
cookies (with oats) rather than eat the processed Chips Ahoy, and
we’ll make homemade ice cream or buy something good quality
rather than eat the colors-not-found-in-nature flavors out there.
And if I make ice cream during the summer, I’ll often top it
with fresh berries for Maddie. Throw a couple cups of strawberries
in the food processor with two tablespoons of sugar and
you’ve got a lightly sweetened treat that’s perfect for
mixing in yogurt, making a parfait, or topping ice cream.

As you develop kid-friendly recipes, remember that everything
goes better with cheese. Or pasta.
Yes, I said not to give in
to them, but you’ve got to meet them halfway. I’m not
advocating drowning the broccoli in Velveeta, but toss some
parmesan on it. A bowl full of cooked veggies will go untouched,
but if those veggies have been tossed in a favorite stir-fry flavor
with rice or pasta, at least a few of those veggies will get eaten.

And speaking of pasta, I’m a big believer in one-pot
. Cooking one big entrée with most of your foods in
it means everyone at the table is having the same thing, first of
all. Second, your toddler will be able to deconstruct it –
pick out what he likes, leave what he doesn’t like – so
feel in control, but still have all options on his plate. Just the
close proximity of favorite foods will make the not-so-favorite
foods more tempting. I’ve put together a couple recipes for
spinach that are simply variations on a theme – one is
stuffed manicotti with spinach and ground beef, and the other is a
spinach lasagna with a meat sauce. Both are full of several kinds
of cheese and pasta, but have protein and spinach in them as well.
Maddie’s happy to eat the spinach since it’s pretty
intertwined with the ricotta cheese, and the ground beef texture
doesn’t bother her so much when it’s part of the red

Don’t be afraid to talk to other mommies – most
of us have only a couple of really “hot” recipes and
are more than happy to share. You’ll get some new ideas from
people who understand your limited range. And if you’ve got
an idea I haven’t covered here, please post below so we can
all share in it!!

If you’re having trouble getting your toddler to eat at
mealtime, look at how he’s snacking. My friend Graham
found his daughter Elisabeth ate much better at meals when he cut
carb snacks like pretzels and goldfish out of her snack times.
Toddlers need snacks – don’t get me wrong – but
often times they’re grazing during the day on less-filling
food and aren’t in the mood for the real meals.

Finally, don’t sweat it and don’t give up. I
know it sounds like I’m Crazy Healthy Mommy, but I’m
not. I limit Maddie’s sugar and don’t give her juice,
but she eats pizza almost every week. I just make sure she has
fresh fruit and some carrot sticks with that pizza. So don’t
despair when time is short and you’re driving through the
golden arches – just try to order the yogurt parfait and skip
the chocolate milk. And don’t give up – keep offering
the healthy, reasonable meals and your toddler will grow into them.
You’re setting the stage for a lifetime of eating habits, so
hang in there.

Since snacking is such a part of toddler reality, we’re going
to cover that tomorrow. We’ll talk about when to snack, how
to control it in public situations, and some concrete suggestions
for using snack time to pack in those nutrients.


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