The 6 Best Rules of Toddler Nutrition

PHOTO: Getting kids involved in selecting a food increases the chance they will eat it.
Ariel Skelley-Blend Images/Getty Images

If your kids refuse to eat anything but chicken nuggets, pizza or pasta, health coach and childhood nutrition expert, Stephanie Merchant has some advice for you. Known as “The Nutrition Mom”, Merchant offers these six suggestions for getting your children to eat a healthier diet.

Join: Toddler Nutrition tweet chat today at 1 p.m. ET url:

6 Rules of Toddler Nutrition

De-stress mealtime.

Many parents make the mistake of turning the dinner table into a battleground, Merchant said.

“You don’t want to make mealtime a power struggle,” she advised. “Instead, think of ways to make meals fun and entertaining.”

Kids between the ages of 2 and 5 can struggle with neophobia, a genuine fear of new foods. But if they are constantly exposed to a wide variety of choices, most will outgrow it. Try introducing theme nights, Merchant suggested. Make a list of several fun concepts such as pirates, princesses and ponies and let your child choose one. They get to pick the theme and you can probably still make the same meal you planned all along. A child who feels like part of the process is more likely to be a happy eater, she said.

6 Rules of Toddler Nutrition

Get them cooking.

Involving your kids in the cooking process not only makes them more invested in the success of the meal, it teaches them life skills far beyond the kitchen, Merchant pointed out. Younger kids learn to appreciate what goes into preparing a meal. Parents of older kids can incorporate mini lessons on topics like measurement, math and chemistry.

“Even if your child is too young to do anything more than bang on the pots and pans, it’s never too early to get them thinking about how food gets to the table,” she said.

6 Rules of Toddler Nutrition

Take them shopping.

Taking a small child along on a grocery shopping expedition sounds like a nightmare, but Merchant said it’s actually a great way to set up lifelong healthy eating habits. For example, take a tour through the produce aisle and allow your child to select one new fruit or vegetable to try. Have older children read the labels; if a third-grader can’t pronounce all the ingredients, that’s a food you should consider leaving on the shelf.

6 Rules of Toddler Nutrition

Grow your own.

Whether it’s a full garden or a potato with two toothpicks in a jar by the window, Merchant said it’s always good for children to see the life cycle of a food.

“Anytime you grow something hands on, you get them intrigued and more aware of the growing process,” she explained.

6 Rules of Toddler Nutrition

Keep trying.

If first you don’t succeed with Brussels sprouts or spinach, try, try again, Merchant advised. She said many children need to see a food on their plate numerous times and often in variety of ways before they will venture a test nibble.

“You have to know whether your child likes things crunchy, soft or well done,” she said. “If they don’t like a food the first time, it could be the preparation and not the food itself.”

6 Rules of Toddler Nutrition

Learn together.

Changing a child’s health habits should be a family affair, Merchant said. If the way you eat is less than perfect, your child will notice.

“Your actions speak so loud that you may not always be able to hear what they are saying,” she said.

Merchant advised sitting down with your child and coming up with one new healthy eating habit per week that the whole family can try. For example, you might focus on smaller portion sizes, increasing your fruit and veggie intake or cutting back on sugar-sweetened beverages. Over time, the entire family will benefit from a more sensible diet plan.

6 Rules of Toddler Nutrition

No one said it would be easy to get your child to stick to a healthy diet. If you’re looking for a little help, you don’t want to miss today’s ABC News health tweet chat on toddler nutrition.

The chat will be moderated by Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News’ chief health and medical correspondent. It’s cosponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics. We’ve got doctors, researchers and nutrition experts on hand to share their thoughts on the best way to feed your child. Parents and caregivers will also be chiming in. We’ll cover everything from food sensitivities to genetically modified foods to putting your kid on a diet.

If you’re not a Twitter pro, no worries. Just follow these three simple steps to join in on the conversation.

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