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Inside: Looking for meals toddlers will eat? There are 5 secrets to turning the meal you just made into a meal your toddler will eat. Plus I’ll give you 10 toddler-friendly meals!
You’re looking at your darling child having a full-on tantrum. Turns out, they wanted plain pasta, not pasta with the sauce on it. How could you?! So you get them a clean plate, give them plain pasta, no sauce. They flip it over and cry for a granola bar. “Cry” doesn’t do it justice. Finally, just wanting to make the whole thing stop, you go get what your toddler wants. You’re exhausted, you feel defeated.
More than anything, you want to make a meal your toddler will just eat, no battles on the side. Are there special meals that toddlers eat? You’re searching for meals that toddlers eat, but I’ll show you that it’s less about the food and more about mealtime. I’ll show you my 5 secrets to turning meals into meals toddlers eat and show you 10 easy meal ideas that are toddler-friendly.
1. Stop Pressuring Your Child to Eat the Meal
Toddlers want to be independent more than anything in the world. They are also just figuring things out, like if you peel a banana wrong the first time, there’s no magic to put it back together. Oh banana tantrums, am I right?
Parents pressuring kids to eat is one of the top reasons toddlers won’t eat meals. Because if you are a toddler and you want to be independent, and someone tells you to eat 5 peas, what are you going to do?
Not eat the peas. You will die on the hill of not eating peas.
Your toddler doesn’t have anything better to do. They will die on the hill of not eating dinner. And there is no magical “meal” that will actually get your toddler to eat. It’s not always about the food.
Honor Their Independence
So, do your child a favor and honor their independence with their body. They should be able to choose what to eat and how much to eat. I suggest stopping all forms of pressuring your child to eat at meal time.
That means stop telling them to try a bite. Stop telling them 3 more bites. Stop bribing them with dessert. Just put the food on the table or on their plate and call it a day. Whether they eat it is up to them.
2. Own Your Role As the Parent to Make Meals Toddlers Will Eat.
Giving your child independence over their body is not the end of the story though. If you don’t own your role in mealtimes, your child may start calling the shots. Soon you may find yourself on the toddler meal rotation of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, not a veggie to be seen.
You may have heard of “kid food” before. It’s a code word for processed foods toddlers and kids like on the very first bite. They are meals toddlers will always eat. Kids need lots of exposures to learn to eat other kinds of foods. Unprocessed foods, the ones we want our kids to eat a lot of, may take more time to learn to like.
So we need to steer ourselves toward serving balanced unprocessed foods most of the time. This gives toddlers plenty of experience to learn to like a variety of foods.
Your Job As the Parent
As the parent it’s your job to decide what foods are served at meals and snacks. A meal and snack schedule is helpful for this. It makes sure your child is hungry. It’s also important not to have screens while the child is eating. Make sure they are eating in a designated eating area.
When you are creating meals for your child, make sure that there is at least one food that they usually like on the table. After that, build out the meal and do not make another meal. Even if they throw a tantrum and scream for mac and cheese, that’s it. This is the meal.
Gosh, that sounds harsh.
Trust me, serving your child a balanced meal with one food that you know they usually like, is very nurturing. You’re doing a great job.
If they don’t want to eat it, it’s okay! They will have another meal or snack coming soon. If you want to read more about this, you may enjoy my free 14-page child feeding guide.
3. Toddlers Will Eat Meals That Are Separated
This is a “hack” that many parents think is a crutch. They are afraid to use it. I say (and I’m a registered dietitian), “Go for it!” Serve your meals “deconstructed.” Make meals so that all the parts can be separated out.
Toddlers often won’t eat meals that are mixed together, because mixed foods are unpredictable. They don’t know what to expect from the experience. Maybe they will get a piece of slimy mushroom with a piece of crunchy topping. Yikes!
I suggest steering clear of casseroles, and instead focusing on meals that can be served as different parts. More in my list of 10 meals down below.
4. Toddlers Will Eat Meals That Are Easy to Chew
One reason that toddlers will not eat meals, is that they are full of foods that are much too difficult for them to chew. Raw vegetables and fruits are often not appropriate for small children.
Here are a few things that you can do to make hard foods in meals easier and safer for toddlers to chew:
- Slightly cook hard fruits and veggies like carrots, apples, celery, etc.
- Shred crunchy fruits and veggies
- Steam veggies
- Dice fruits and veggies like cucumber, tomatoes, strawberries,
- Grind up nuts and seeds and mix with something like applesauce or yogurt
- Slow roast chicken and fish in the oven at a low temperature with foil or a lid covering it during cooking
Avoid dishes where foods are too crisp, as toddlers are unlikely to eat meals when they have to chew the food for 5 minutes.
Chewing is a skill that children learn over time. Usually by age 4, children are able to fully chew using rotary chewing. This enables them to chew things like nuts and hard things. Until then, we can cut things up and cook them.
5. Toddlers Will Eat Meals With a New Utensil
I’ve been amazed with my own two kids, how they are so happy to eat almost anything with a new utensil. Toddlers love to start to learn utensil skills.
Maybe they just start with banging a fork against their rice, but this will eventually turn into eating rice with a fork. Toddlers love to start to use forks, spoons, “baby” knives, and some older ones (2+) may start to enjoy toothpicks. And it goes without saying, all meals and snacks should be supervised with toddlers.
If you are looking for specific utensils that your child will use to eat with, I compiled a helpful list in Top 11 Eating Utensils for Kids.
10 Balanced Meals that Toddlers Will Eat
Here are 10 meals that toddlers can learn to love when they are served without pressure and with a parent in charge of mealtime.
You can serve all of these foods completely separately, so that “the sauce isn’t touching”, and they can be made easy to chew.
Chicken & Veggies
Slow roasted chicken (cooked in the oven covered with foil)
White rice served with butter or olive oil
Roasted carrots (cook drizzled with oil and covered with foil in the oven)
Grilled Cheese & Soup
Grill whole grain bread with cheese
Veggie-based soup like tomato soup or mixed vegetable soup
Serve with diced soft fruit like pears or strawberries
Fish & Veggies
Slow roasted fish (cooked in the oven covered with foil)
Quinoa (rinsed before cooking to make softer and taste better) served with butter or olive oil
Roasted broccoli (cook with drizzled oil and covered with foil in the oven)
Veggie Pizza with Salad
Make homemade pizzas together, let them put toppings on
Cut up into small pieces after cooked
Side salad (chop lettuce into tiny pieces so that your toddler can manage them and shred any hard veggies you add, like carrots)
Clementines, chopped small
Pasta with Meatballs
Meatballs (diced small)
Serve everything separately and allow your child to choose what they want.
Shredded raw carrots on the side
Ground taco meat/beans
Diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and finely shredded purple cabbage
Scrambled Eggs & Toast
Whole grain toast with butter or peanut butter
Steamed broccoli (don’t forget veggies for breakfast)
Plain unsweetened yogurt
Shredded apples and carrots
Give them the option of mixing things together
Beans and Rice
Canned beans, heated
Frozen peas and carrots, cooked
Give them the option of adding things together
If you need more meal and snack ideas that are great for families with kids ages 1+, you might be interested in Real Easy Weekdays.