4 Steps to Healthy & Safe Eating for Toddlers

by Catherine Callahan, MS, CCC-SLP, CLC

Your little babe is growing up, heading into the toddler years (12 to 36 months) and now you’re starting to wonder, “what will I feed my toddler?” and “how can I feed my toddler to avoid picky eating and future feeding struggles?”

As a mom of three, with one currently in the toddler stage, and a professional with years of training on the topic, here I share a FOUR STEP FORMULA for Food Prepping for Toddlers to promote healthy, safe, and well-rounded eating:

  1. Make it safe
  2. Make it balanced
  3. Include variety
  4. Make it fun


Make It Safe

First up, and always most important, is safety. Toddlers, who are developing on time (beginning to pull up, taking first steps, picking up small objects easily with their hands, and beginning to talk), should be able to take bites, chew with a diagonal, and eventually, rotary chewing pattern, and eat a wide variety of textures (puree, soft, crunchy, and hard). However, a complete, mature chewing pattern is not yet present until 24 to 36 months, and some foods are not safe in their original form until age 4, so making sure to offer food in a safe manner is important.

  • For soft fruits, cooked vegetables, cooked beans, and breads, anything you can smash between your fingers, is generally considered safe. These may be offered in long stick-shapes, larger disc or square pieces, or in small bite sized pieces.
  • For meats, soft slow cooked meats (from soups, stews, slow cookers), deli meats, and ground meats, are all generally easy for this age group to chew. However, harder meats like steak, pork, chicken, hot dogs, may be more difficult. Cut these foods in small pieces (about the size of your pinky finger nail) or serve in or with a sauce or dip to make them easier to chew.
  • Raw vegetables, because many of these can be a choking hazard, should be cut in long thin, even paper thin, slivers with skins removed, or should be avoided all together.

The following foods are choking hazards until age 4:

  • apples, whole grapes, hot dogs, raw carrots and other raw, hard vegetables, popcorn, nuts, and thickly spread nut butters.


Make It Balanced

For me, as a speech-language pathologist highly focused on textures, oral sensory-motor development, and chewing, balance means two things: nutrition AND texture.

Nutrition

It’s important we feed our toddlers food from all nutrition groups. I recommend planning your child’s plate at each meal to include at least one food from each food group:

  • 1 fresh fruit or vegetable
  • 1 protein source (meat, beans, nut or nut butter)
  • 1 dairy (milk or milk substitute, cheese, butter, yogurt)
  • 1 carbohydrate or starch (whole grain bread, rice, pasta, oats…)

Texture

To ensure our children keep a varied diet, continue to advance their oral sensory-motor skills, and avoid any strong sensory preferences/aversions, I recommend planning your child’s plate at each meal to include:

  • 1 puree texture (yogurt, mashed potatoes, fruit or veggie purees, dips, spreads, soups, stews)
  • 1 soft wet solid (fresh fruits, cooked vegetables, noodles, beans, rice, soft meats, fish)
  • 1 soft dry solid (breads, muffins, pancakes, breaded meats, breaded fish)
  • 1 dry crunchy solid (crackers, chips, toast, rice cakes, veggie straws)

Include variety

This is one of the most important strategies you can use to avoid picky eating: variety. Including variety sounds simple, but I know through personal experience, it can be one of the biggest challenges. It’s extremely common, even as adults, to tend to want to eat the same foods over and over. They’re foods we like, they’re comforting, and they’re what we grab during a quick shopping trip. However, I recommend serving a wide variety of foods to your toddler. Toddlers need variety and exposure to that variety in order to learn. If your child is only served a set of 15 different meals, when something new is offered, they’ll be likely to refuse it.

To keep the variety up:

  • Avoid offering the same food for 2 days in a row
  • Make a conscious effort to pick up new foods or even new brands of preferred foods at the grocery store (e.g. if you typically buy store bought buttermilk waffles, this week, pick up blueberry waffles or a different brand of buttermilk waffles instead; if you regularly buy strawberries in the summer, pick up peaches this week).
  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables based on what is harvested during the year: this will keep your meals varied without much thought (I like to shop at our local farmer’s market in the spring, summer, and fall to change things up, eat what’s current, and support our local farmers)
  • Meal plan: To do this, you don’t need to fill out a fancy form or use a special program. Simply jot it down on a sticky note before you head to the store. Think through what you’d like to serve at each meal during the week, and head out with that list in hand. When you make a conscious effort to plan, you’ll be less likely to serve the exact menu each week.
  • Serve everyone in the family the same meal, with variations or accommodations made only for texture safety or diet restrictions.

 

Make It Fun

Toddlers are known for their new ability to exercise their opinions, be emotional, and say no. This is the time that our babies may start to protest at meals, ask for new foods, prefer to get up and play. So, adding a little fun into your meals can excite them, get them to the table, encourage tasting of new foods, and provide language-learning opportunities during mealtime. Now, you don’t need to make your child’s food into a work of art, but simple little changes are sure to spice up your toddler’s mealtime. Try these ideas:

 

  • Sprinkles: fill an empty salt shaker with broccoli tops, chia seeds, hemp hearts, cocoa nibs, or even your classic rainbow sprinkles, then use it to top yogurt, oatmeal, fresh fruit, toast spreads, pancakes, etc.
  • Food picks: use a “child-safe toothpick”, coffee stopper, or a cute decorative food pick in a less-preferred food; show your child how they can pick up little bites one at a time.
  • A fun plate: changing up the plate you use can make a big difference. Choose one with a character theme your child loves, try a divided plate (like the Dr. Brown’s Designed to Nourish Divided Plate) for kids who don’t like their food to mix, or ditch the plate and use a mini muffin tin or ice cube tray to serve a little variety.
  • Cookie or veggie cutters: Use your holiday cookie cutters or store-bought mini veggie cutters to make new veggies, fruits, or even sandwiches into fun shapes, letters, or characters. I like to mix up lunch time by making heart shaped sandwiches one day and dinosaurs next. This is super-easy to do and builds a lot of excitement at the table.
  • Food coloring: Try changing a food you’re serving by making it your child’s favorite color. Add a little pureed spinach to pancakes to make them hulk-style, or use food coloring to make pink yogurt for your little princess. A little color goes a long way!

All of this can sound like a lot to consider, but try focusing on one feature at a time. Once you get into a routine, it will come easily, without a lot of thought or planning. Remember that little changes on a daily basis will make a big difference in the long term.

About the author:


Catherine Callahan, MS, CCC-SLP, CLC
ChiKids Speech & Feeding, LLC
chikidsfeeding.com
@chikidsfeeding

Catherine is a speech-language pathologist, pediatric feeding specialist, certified lactation consultant, and mom of three. She resides in Chicago, where she works at a top 10 US Children’s Hospital and owns her own business, ChiKids Speech & Feeding, LLC. In her private practice, Catherine offers in-home and virtual feeding evaluations and treatment for local infants and children; and through her social media and blog, she shares everyday feeding strategies and supports families and professionals across the globe.

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