“You have no idea what a big deal this is, but last night, my daughter ate a pizza roll with spinach in it.”
These are the words of a parent who knows the struggles of feeding young children. If you have a toddler, you know the drill. The smallest steps are giant leaps.
“Mixed foods are a deal breaker for a lot of kids, including my daughter,” continues Amy Palanjian, creator of the website YummyToddlerFood External Site. “But it didn’t stop me from trying,” she adds.
Palanjian knows the challenges of feeding toddlers because she lives it every day, with an opinionated five-year-old and a spunky one-year-old underfoot.
“Like me, many parents feel pressure to feed their kids ‘perfectly.’ But you quickly learn it isn’t realistic,” she says. “Today, my focus is on surrounding my children with nutritious foods at home to help balance the other food they might be getting out in the world.”
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Her website helps other parents do the same. The food is taste-tested and appealing to young kids. Aside from fun toddler meal ideas, it includes family-friendly recipes, healthy toddler snacks and easy lunch ideas. All of her recipes are affordable, accessible and simple to prepare.
“The focus is on simple,” says Palanjian, adding “I may use a cookie cutter now and then, but I am no food artist. I do not create impossibly cute shapes from food.”
Palanjian works full time, and her children attend day care. This means she relies on a meal plan, and a spreadsheet-based grocery list to help her stay organized.
In a nutshell, she follows this advice from renowned dietitian, author and feeding expert Ellyn Satter:
The parent is responsible for what, when, where.
The child is responsible for how much and whether.
Simple advice for feeding young children
Dinner is her biggest challenge
Dinner time is hard. If your kids have been at day care or school, they are likely tired or want your attention. To keep your kid from melting down before or at dinner, here are Palanjian’s top three tips:
- Prep veggies in advance.
“Cleaning and chopping vegetables is a roadblock because it can seem hard in the moment. Streamline the process by doing it all at once,” says Palanjian, who spends 30 minutes each weekend prepping vegetables for the weekday meals. She refrigerates the prepped veggies in quart-size mason jars, which are a great size for a family of four. Prepping works best for vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, onions or green beans, she says. It doesn’t work as well for vegetables that brown after chopping, like potatoes. As long as your produce is totally dry it will last up to five days in the refrigerator.
- Keep it super simple.
“It can be difficult for parents to accept that their meals may not look the same as when they had more time, or didn’t have kids. You may have to shift your idea of what dinner is really about,” she says. “Now, it’s about having time as a family, and keeping everyone fed and happy. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Keep it focused. For example, tonight we’re having burrito bowls. The rice is made, the black beans are from a can. We have roasted carrots, lettuce, cheese and salsa. All I have to do is warm a few things up and it’s ready to go.”
- Include fresh fruit as a side dish.
“I always cut up some fruit,” says Palanjian. “It’s easy and nutritious. This provides a safety net if kids don’t like the main dish.”
Amy's answers to common feeding questions
What challenge are you facing right now with your kids at mealtime?
Cooking a meal that everyone enjoys, that’s the constant challenge. And by everyone, I mean myself, too. Lately, the reality of having little kids at the table is that they need help. For the parent, that means a lot of getting up and down—which can get in the way of being able to focus on our own hunger and fullness.
Do you have a picky eater?
I find that when a parent says that a child is a "picky" eater, they really mean that they are frustrated by what the child does and does not eat. If you are regularly using that word, you may be setting your child up to act the part. I think every child is picky at some point in time, as are most adults. It can help to remember that selective eating is a normal part of child development. Kids are supposed to test boundaries; to rebel at expectations. That said, I know that there are extreme cases of selective eating and there are certainly feeding issues that sometimes need professional help. I always recommend the help of a feeding therapist in those rare cases.
Do any of your kids have any food allergies?
I am lucky that my children don't, but I know many kids who do. You’ll find a lot of allergy-free options on my site.
What one tip has transformed mealtime in your home?
Letting my oldest daughter make her own choices. She likes power! If I put food on my daughter's plate, she will have a complaint. I noticed, though, that when she went to day care, she had no problems. Turns out they let the kids dish up their own food, family style. Genius! Doing this at home has transformed mealtime. Instead of putting the food on her plate, I simply put the food on the table, and she can choose what she wants on her plate.
How can you help your kids make healthy choices?
As a parent, you make the choice about what foods come into the house and go onto the table for family meals. Try to have one or two foods on the table your kid usually enjoys. That way, when they see something else that may be more unfamiliar, there’s still something they'll eat.
"If your kid doesn't like a meal, don't take it personally. The reasons(s) may defy logic. I always tell myself that meals are not just about the food; they are about the time together."
How do you avoid being a short-order cook?
It's too easy to get into a habit of making multiple meals for different tastes. My advice is don’t start, or stop if you are in the habit of doing it. Once you start cooking them something special, the expectation is that you’ll do it again. Kids are smart. They will hold out for the food they want. Again, my advice is to put one or two foods they enjoy on the table for family meals to help keep everyone happy.
What do you think about sneaking vegetables into food?
I put veggies into a lot of foods, but I always tell my kids what’s in it. For example, last night we had burgers and I put carrots and onions in the burger patty. I told them up-front. I think it’s important not to try to pull one over on your kids. If they can’t trust something, they won’t eat it the next time it’s offered, and they won’t know that they like it when they encounter it out in the world as they grow.
What about a toddler who eats only one food, like mac and cheese?
It can often feel like our kids don't eat anything other than a few things, but I'd challenge you to keep a running list of everything they eat over the course of a week, not simply a day. You might be surprised to see the list get longer than you expect! One tip is to try not to serve the same foods two days in a row. Let them know that they can have their favorite food tomorrow, but today, it’s something else. This is a simple way to gently expand their accepted food list.
The bottom line:
It is unrealistic to expect our toddlers to eat everything we serve them. It is realistic to expect them to make choices about what they want to eat based on what we serve them. If we give them the opportunity to do that without judgement or pushing, then I think we're setting them up for a much healthier relationship with food—and their bodies—for years to come."
Toddler still won’t eat dinner? Try these tips to conquer your feeding troubles.