Healthy eating tips for babies and toddlers

For parents of little ones, the task of reinforcing healthy habits around the dinner table can cause a bit of apprehension: What foods are best? How do I get my kids to eat their veggies? How much is too much? Parents can find it hard to know if they’re encouraging healthy eating habits in their young children.

Mollie Grow, MD, MPH, pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital – and the mother of two young girls – says that the old adage “you are what you eat” is pretty spot-on, even more so for young children whose growing minds and bodies depend on a number of different nutrients.

Nutritional recommendations have changed over time, but Grow says we now know the most we’ve ever known about nutrition.

“We’ve learned that fresh foods – especially fruits and vegetables – and variety in our diets provides the best nutrients our bodies need for optimal growth and performance,” she says. “All the different parts of our foods work together. For example, iron is needed for learning, calcium and vitamin D are needed for bone growth, vitamin B12 helps the blood grow and vitamin C helps the immune system and repairs soft tissues.”

Grow recommends starting healthy habits early. The sooner healthy habits are established, the better.

5 tips for starting healthy habits young

In the not-so-distant past, parents were told formula was best for babies. Now, parents are encouraged to breastfeed their newborns. Similarly, many pediatricians now suggest starting solid foods with mashed fruits and vegetables rather than the old standby of rice cereal.

So, how is a parent to know what’s best for their baby? Grow sets the record straight and offers five simple tips for starting your baby out right.

  1. Good nutrition starts with mom. Babies are more likely to accept new foods they’ve had exposure to through mom’s breast milk. Moms who are not breastfeeding can still be great role models of healthy eating. As babies are learning to eat, they pay attention to what others eat. “We often got our daughters to try a new food if we ate it first and showed we were enjoying it,” says Grow.
  2. Don’t give up. The funny faces babies make when they first start new foods doesn’t always mean they don’t like the food or won’t eat it. Enjoy those adorable, funny faces, and don’t let them scare you away from healthy feedings.
  3. Variety is good. Introduce your baby to fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, plain yogurt, cheese, soft meats. Or get creative and combine these foods for even better taste. Grow’s top picks for her daughter include mashed black beans and carrots and spinach with pears.
  4. DIY (Do it Yourself). “Making your own baby food is much simpler than it sounds,” says Grow. The fresh taste of the food is much better than its jarred counterpart. Try a hand-crank food mill for easy preparation. Grow’s favorite pick: Fresh-mashed peas.
  5. Be persistent but patient. Babies learn to eat what the family/culture eats. Be persistent about reinforcing healthy foods, but never force feed your baby.

10 tips for reinforcing proper nutrition

Toddlers can be tricky, but parents don’t need to panic. Grow says a child’s love for vegetables comes with time and exposure. The more fruits and vegetables the better, because children exposed to healthy foods early on are more likely to keep to their healthy habits as they age. Early, proper nutrition sets children up for success later in life.

Grow offers 10 tips for parents of toddlers:

  1. Have patience! Toddlers can be unpredictable and a bit messy. Parents may be tempted to give in to a child’s demand for “junk food,” but Grow advises parents to stay strong.
  2. Make healthy snacks available. Offer a variety of fruits and vegetables every day – every single day! Have fruits and vegetables around the house for a between-meal snack option.
  3. Set guidelines for desserts and treats. Decide on your family’s guidelines for dessert and stick to it. Grow offers dessert only on the weekend. Otherwise, offer fruit for a sweet treat.
  4. Schedule meals. Have regular meals and snacks scheduled, rather than letting kids graze all day. At snack time, offer ‘mini meals’ – a half sandwich, veggies and dip, low-sugar yogurt, cheese, fruit, etc.
  5. Portion control is key. Buy bowls and containers that are appropriately sized for kids.
  6. Encourage kids to drink lots of water. Only offer water in between meals. Low-fat milk is okay, but only for meal time.
  7. Limit juice. Kids should drink no more than 4-6 oz. once a day.
  8. Remember that evolution happens naturally. Recognize that children will grow out of narrow-minded habits. We can all evolve with exposure to varied foods.
  9. Let kids try “Real Meals.” Encourage kids to taste spicier, more flavorful versions of their meals.
  10. Avoid processed foods. Foods lose their vitamins when they’re processed. They are also full of chemicals, even BPA.

Lastly, be a role model for your kids. Practice healthy habits as a family and start fun traditions, like homemade popcorn on the stove.

Grow encourages family time around mealtime and says parents shouldn’t be afraid to get kids involved in the cooking process. The more fun families have around meal time the better – and healthier.

Additional resources:

If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Grow please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at [email protected].