Healthy Meal Hacks for Picky Toddlers

May 25, 2018 at 10:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Providing toddlers with healthy sustenance can be quite a challenge for many parents. One day, they love something, the next day, they toss it to the dog. They want to snack all the time, but they won't sit down for a meal. They put everything their mouths… except actual food. And if you’ve got a picky little person on your hands, what on Earth do you feed them? We spoke with pro meal planner Julie Sharron (of Busy & Broke) about feeding picky toddlers — and she gave us some tried-and-true recipes to keep all your progeny fed and happy.

More: Calming Foods for Hyperactive Kids (Yes, Really)

Sharron has plenty of snacks in her arsenal; after all, she has a toddler of her own. String cheese, sugar snap peas, seaweed sheets, lentil puffs, berries (so many berries, all the berries), tangerines and peanut butter crackers are her go-to options for easy everyday snacks. But if she's having an ambitious week, she has a couple of easy and healthful go-to recipes she knows her kids love.

Healthy Meal Hacks for Picky Toddlers: Veggie Muffins
Image: Courtesy of Julie Sharron

Veggie muffins recipe

Sharron likes this recipe because she likes knowing her toddler will eat their vegetables and get lots of iron and fiber to boot. The zucchini can be shredded on a cheese grater, but she recommends a food processor for the carrot and spinach.

Yields 18

Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup honey and/or maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
  • 2 eggs
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon citrus zest (optional, but recommended)
  • 2 cups (about 1 medium) finely shredded zucchini
  • 1 cup (about 1 big or 2 medium) finely shredded carrot
  • 1/2 cup finely shredded spinach (optional, for extra iron)
  • 2 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 cup blueberries (optional)
  • finely chopped almonds/peanuts/walnuts for topping (optional, but adds protein)

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the cups of your muffin tins lightly with cooking spray. This recipe makes 18 muffins, so you'll need 3 small (6-muffin) tins or 1 large (12-muffin) and 1 small muffin tin. Or you can work in batches. Just make sure you allow the muffin tin to cool and regrease the cups between batches.
  2. In a large bowl, mix oil, honey/syrup, molasses, eggs, vanilla and zest well. Mix in the shredded veggies. Set aside.
  3. In another large bowl, mix together the whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.
  4. Gently stir the dry mixture into the wet mixture until just moistened.
  5. Fold in blueberries.
  6. Fill each muffin cup about 3/4 full with batter. Sprinkle nuts on top if desired. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

‘Mo' pasta recipe

A recent favorite of Sharron's daughter's is something she calls fancy Hamburger Helper, but her daughter calls, "Mo' pasta!" She says you can use any kinds of spices you like (and as much or little as you like), so it's great for using up spices that are about to be past their optimum freshness date. Just make sure you stick to a theme and that the spices taste good together and with the other ingredients.

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 white or yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • Oregano (to taste)
  • Garlic powder (to taste) 
  • Red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • Salt (to taste)
  • Black pepper (to taste)
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes with basil
  • 2 cups minced carrots
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 1 pound (16 ounces) elbow macaroni, cooked
  • Grated Parmesan (for garnish)

Directions:

  1. In a large heavy-bottom pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, preheat the olive oil. Sauté the onion until soft. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 60 to 90 seconds.
  2. Add the ground beef, stirring frequently and cooking until no longer pink, breaking it up if necessary as you cook.
  3. Add the oregano, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper to taste. Start with just a few pinches or shakes and keep adding until you like what you taste.
  4. Stir in the carrots and zucchini, turn the heat to low and cook for an hour or so until the zucchini and carrots are softened but not mushy.
  5. Stir in the cooked macaroni and serve warm garnished with Parmesan.

If you’re getting frustrated with your child’s “eccentric” tastes, keep in mind: This too shall pass.

“I've known toddlers who will only eat freeze-dried peas and hummus and others who will only eat waffles and chicken nuggets,” says Sharron. “Kids are so weird. You've just got to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks (literally, in some cases).”

That said, meal planning with a picky toddler at home can be challenging. Sharron recommends keeping what she calls “toddler tapas” (aka anything you can just toss onto their plate that you know they'll eat) on hand while planning more normal meals for the rest of the family.

“Offer them the family meal, but if they reject it, at least you'll have a backup plan without resorting to cooking an entire new meal for the toddler,” she says. “The more your kid is exposed to your food, the more likely they'll get curious enough to try. However, I know from being a working parent that sometimes you just cannot fight that fight. Lean on those snacks! I usually do a combo of veggie/protein/fruit, like a string cheese with frozen peas (weirdly, a toddler fave — try if you haven't) and berries.”

As for toddler-friendly meals, Sharron has a few great ideas. “Shoutout to Dr. Praeger's spinach tots! Those things are a lifesaver,” she says.

Healthy Meal Hacks for Picky Toddlers: Veggie Muffins
Image: Courtesy of Julie Sharron

Other recommendations include:

  • Beans and cheese with avocado (“My kid loves [it with] sour cream, aka ‘ice cream,’ and Cholula.”)
  • Scrambled eggs with spinach
  • Mac and cheese ("I like to add frozen riced cauliflower and frozen peas to boxed mac and cheese.")
  • Veggie chili with rice (this is a simple mix-and-dump that makes so much food but is insanely cheap) 
  • 3-ingredient banana pancakes ("Though I add vanilla and cinnamon since I can't leave well enough alone.")
  • "Toddler pizza" (heat up a tortilla with sauce, veggies and cheese on a skillet or pan)

For parents interested in exploring the topic further, Sharron recommends reading the book First Bite by Bee Wilson. “It totally changed the way I think about food, especially about introducing new foods to my kid,” she says.

But the bottom line? Don't stress. "With toddlers, everything is a phase," Sharron explains. "There aren't really any adults that will only eat white bread with the crusts cut off and Plum Organics pouches. If your kid is happy, healthy and has a handful of healthy food that they enjoy, you're doing great. Keep cooking and trying new things yourself. At the very worst, at least you'll be eating well."

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