Feeding Baby: How to Raise a Healthy Eater (Plus Recipes!)
“Oh my gosh, he is such a good eater! I wish I could get my kids to eat like that.” I hear comments like this all the time from people who are amazed by how healthy my boys eat. No, I do not believe that I just lucked out in this department. I have put a lot of thought and research in to planning how best to feed my family. I whole-heartedly believe that children are only able to grow and learn to their full potential when they have a tummy full of real, nutritious food to fuel their bodies and mind. I know every parent wants this for their babies and that is why I am sharing the approach that I have had success with for raising healthy eaters.
I will be the first to admit that ensuring my kids are eating well is not an easy task. There has been a fair amount of extra effort required on our part as the parents. I have committed a significant amount of my time to preparing wholesome meals from scratch. While in the company of others, I am always keeping an eye out in case I need to quickly intercept unhealthy food offered from well-meaning sharers. Unfortunately, I have even had to be assertive and hold my ground against unsupportive family members. I truly believe that the extra energy we are putting into managing our boy’s diets now will pay off later. Our children will benefit greatly throughout the whole span of their lives from having developed a strong foundation and positive relationship with their food.
Obviously, I am not a pediatrician or nutritionists. This post is not me telling other parents what specific diets I think they should be feeding their children. As most of you know, our family eats a plant-based diet. The route we took for introducing solids to our babies was far from the standard AAP recommended approach that most American pediatricians would advise a new parent to do. That being said, when I explain to our pediatrician our alternative preference for feeding our children, her response is: “Great! As long as they are getting a wide variety of nutritious foods. They are obviously healthy and thriving.” I encourage all parents to educate themselves on diet (lifestyle) options, do your research, ask questions, test things out and then make the best-informed decision for your family situation.
My two boys are opposite in every way, including their eating preferences. The older one put down an impressive amount of solid foods from the very beginning at age 6 months. He does not like to be messy and preferred to be spoon fed. Little brother’s interest in solid foods has grown very slowly. He wants to feed himself and move at his own pace. For this reason, we opted for the baby-led weaning approach for him. My boys’ favorite foods have been completely different as well. Even though what my kid’s prefer to eat as babies has been very different, my overall guidelines for feeding our family have remained the same. I believe that my recommendations below for raising a healthy eater can be applied to all kinds of different diets, situations and tastes.
Start From Day One
The earlier you start, the easier it will be. When your children don’t know any different, then they simply don’t know that there is any other way to eat. Introducing baby to a healthy diet should begin even while still in the belly. The amniotic fluid actually takes on the flavor of the foods that a pregnant mother is eating. If mom is eating veggies, baby will learn to like the taste of veggies. If mom is eating ice cream, well, baby will develop a taste for sweets and dairy. This applies to the taste of breast milk as well.
If you have older children, don’t let this discourage you from making changes for the better. Creating healthy eating habits is still completely doable. It will just take extra effort and patience on your part. Make little changes slowly and consistently. Don’t back down once you’ve implemented a positive change.
Start With Vegetables
If you are just beginning the process of introducing solids to your baby, start with vegetables. Let them taste a wide range of vegetables, many times, before introducing any other type of food. A new food needs to be tried many times before a child can decide whether they actually like it or not. Give baby the opportunity to develop a taste and liking for veggies. Let them move at their own pace and remember that any solid food eating before age one is simply for fun and practice. All required nutrients should still be coming from milk. Postpone introducing sweet foods like fruit until they are comfortable with a range of veggies. They will have no problem learning to love the fruits and grains.
Be The Role Model
Children learn how to behave by the example of the adults in their lives. If you expect them to eat their leafy greens, you better be eating your leafy greens too. If you don’t want them eating junk food… you get the point. My husband and I eat clean, balanced diets and nearly never indulge in food or drink that is unhealthy. We don’t believe it is fair to expect our kids to do something that we ourselves are not willing to do. On the special occasion that we do treat ourselves to something sinful, we wait until after the kids have gone to bed.
I have noticed that it is quite common for parents to serve their children a completely different meal from what the adults are eating. Also, it is common for the children to eat at completely different times than their caregiver. In our home we make a point to all sit down at the table and eat every meal together as a family. The same food at the same time.
I believe that one of the biggest mistakes that parents make is preparing separate meals for different members of the family. (Obviously, there are some exceptions to this rule such as dietary restrictions.) If someone doesn’t like what I’ve served, that is fine. They don’t have to eat it. But preparing them an alternative option is out of the question. A child will only skip a meal or two before they decide they would rather eat what’s on the table than go hungry. For me, this is also a matter of teaching my children to be respectful and considerate. I would be mortified if my child ever said, “Ewww, gross! I want something different to eat!” in response to a dish that someone else had prepared for them.
Shop And Prepare Meals Together
Take your kids with you to the grocery store and the farmers market. Better yet, take them to the farm. Make sure they know where their food comes from and how it is made. Encourage them to help in the kitchen. Let them feel like they have ownership over their food. Children are far more likely to make good decisions regarding what they put in their bodies if they are well informed and excited about real food.
Don’t Buy Processed ‘Kid Food’
For some reason, our culture treats children like they are incapable of enjoying real, wholesome food. There are endless amounts of processed food at the grocery store that is targeted directly towards kids. These processed products are packed with sweeteners, excessive sodium and other toxic additives that overwhelm children’s taste buds and make it impossible for them to appreciate the flavors of fresh, real food. Plus, the processed food is horribly addictive. Have high expectations for what your kids are capable of. Give your child the opportunity to develop a “mature” palette and a love for healthy food.
Limit Sweet Treats To Almost Never
This is the one I get the most push back on from other adults. My take on sweets is that if they don’t know what they are missing out on, then they won’t want it. My older son had no idea what cake, cupcakes, donuts or cookies even were until he was nearly three years old. He still has never once had candy or ice cream. We only do desserts on big holidays like birthdays and Thanksgiving. I strongly recommend postponing the introduction of sugary foods to babies and toddlers as long as possible. For the older children, limit sweets to only very special occasions.
When we do enjoy baked goods or sweet treats, I usually bake them myself so that I have full control over the quality of the ingredients and am able to minimize the sugar content. We do bake healthy muffins, protein bars and breads together on a weekly basis. My three-year-old considers these wholesome snacks to be real treats and he loves helping me make them. My husband and I have made a point to never make a big deal about sweets. Our son has consumed processed sugar so infrequently that we have avoided him becoming addicted to it. Now if he asks if he can have what the other kids are eating and I tell him that he cannot, he simply says “ok” and goes back to playing. He absolutely likes to eat sugary treats, but they have never become a point of conflict for us.
Never Ever Use Food As A Reward Or As A Punishment
This point is really important. It is also one of the hardest to implement. Using food as a tool to get your child to do what you want them to do will only encourage them to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. Get creative and come up with a more productive way to “treat” your kids. Also, speak up and encourage your children’s schools and teachers to find a healthier way to reward positive behavior and accomplishments in the classroom.
Avoid the Gimmicks
Try to avoid saying things like, “If you eat three more bites, then you can go play.” Similar to using food as reward/punishment, using these types of “lines” can also contributes to the development of unhealthy eating habits. Many specialists believe that the use of gimmicks to trick kids in to eating more is contributing to the obesity epidemic. Don’t force your child to eat. Treat them with the same respect you would another adult. You get to decide what foods they are served at a meal, but they should get to decide what they eat and how much.
Don’t Give Up
Some days are exhausting, and the temptation is strong to just give in and feed my kids easy junk food that I know they will gobble up. In these moments I try to remind myself that feeding them that way would be unfair and a disservice to them. Strive to be consistent and stick to your morals. Your kids might not be thrilled about how you are feeding them now, but they will be grateful in the future.
Recipe: Baby Bars
1 Cup Oats
1 Cup Whole Wheat Flour (Oat Flour or Baby Oatmeal works as well)
¼ Tsp Cinnamon
¼ Tsp Nutmeg
1 Tsp Baking Powder (Aluminum Free)
1 Tsp Vanilla
2 Tbsp Oil (I use avocado oil)
1 - 2 Tbsp Maple Syrup or Date Syrup (optional sweetener if needed)
1 Ripe Banana, Mashed*
½ - ¾ Cup Pumpkin Puree*
½ - 1 Cup Zucchini, Grated*
*Feel free to swap these ingredients with other fruits and veggies. Experiment with different combinations of apple sauce, spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, blueberries and kale.
Instructions: Mix all the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Then mix in all the wet ingredients. Transfer the mixture on to a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Press and smooth out until approximately ¼ inch thick. Back at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until starting to brown. Cook longer if you would like a crunchier teething biscuit texture. Cut into desired bar sizes once removed from oven. Store in an air tight container in the refrigerator.
Recipe: Veggie Nuggets
1 Tbsp Oil
1 Small Onion, Diced
1 Large Carrots, Diced
½ - 1 Cup Broccoli Florets, Chopped Small
½ Tsp Garlic, Minced
1 Medium to Large Sweet Potato, Small Chunks
½ Cup Red Lentils
1 Cup Water
1 Tbsp Seasonings (Optional – I add salt and Italian herbs for the older kids)
1 Cup Panko Breadcrumbs
Sauté onions, garlic and carrots in a large pan for 5 mins.
Add lentils and sweet potato and sauté for another 5 mins.
Add the water, cover and simmer for approx. 30 mins until all water is gone. Stir occasionally and check moisture content to avoid burning. Add more water if needed to cook long enough that lentils and sweet potatoes are mushy.
Mash together in bowl along with seasonings, if desired. Chill for at least 30 mins. This is key to being able to form nugget shape.
Pour breadcrumbs in a shallow dish. With your hands, roll tablespoon sized scoops into balls. Roll balls in breadcrumbs to coat. Squish and round into nugget shapes as you roll.
Place on parchment paper lined baking sheet and cook for approx. 30 mins at 375 degrees until turning golden brown and crispy on the outside.
Serve with favorite dipping sauces for older children.