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How can I encourage my 2-year-old to try more foods?
Q: My 2-year-old is terrible at mealtimes. He will not eat any vegetables with the exception of canned spinach or pureed baby food (he has to see it coming from the jar, and will not try anything homemade). He won’t eat what the family eats, and only wants his favourites: spaghetti, chicken nuggets or pizza. How can I get him to expand his tastes? I try to make sure he has adequate nutrition by giving him wholesome snacks (enriched items such as breakfast bars and cereals, etc.), but I’m afraid I’m setting him up for failure by not stressing natural foods as a part of a balanced diet.
Jaymee Jacksonville
A: Jaymee, it’s great that you want to encourage your 2-year-old to have a healthy, balanced diet, but many 2-year-olds are picky eaters and have similar favourite foods as your son. Why is this so common? When your son asks for the same foods every day, he’s asking for a sense of predictability, control and comfort. It’s the same for his other routines, such as his bedtime ritual, where he might ask for the same story over and over again, every night.

While it’s likely this is a developmental phase he’ll outgrow, he might also be a child who is temperamentally or physiologically sensitive to different foods. Remember what your goals are—to develop a nurturing relationship with him, to provide him good nutrition, and to lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

So how can you encourage him to eat a wider variety of nutritious foods? First of all, try to create a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere around eating. It’s great to eat dinner together as a family because he’ll see everyone else enjoying mealtime and different foods. Encourage him to eat other foods, but don’t force him. Tell him they are “big boy foods” that will help him grow big and strong. Point out to him that the other big boys and men he knows got so big and strong by eating those healthy foods.

Nutrition experts say parents should offer their children a sufficient quantity and variety of nutritious food, and let the children decide whether and how much to eat. Have one of his favourite foods available for him to eat so he has the comfort he needs and doesn’t go hungry, but keep trying to offer him other healthy foods. Since he likes spaghetti and pizza, try offering different pastas, whole wheat bread, cereal, and rice. For fruits, try apples, grapes, pitted cherries, strawberries, bananas, melon, or even canned fruit. For vegetables, try carrots, broccoli flowers, green beans, peas, cucumber, and avocado. And for protein and dairy, try different meats, chicken, garbanzo beans, cheese, yogurt, and tofu.

Most young children will eat some fruits and vegetables if you make them appealing to them. Some tips are to serve vegetables raw because young children enjoy eating crunchy food; cut fruits and vegetables into wedges, strips, or cubes; and offer a dip of ranch dressing or fruit yogurt because children love finger foods and dip. If your son helps prepare the food (like cutting the fruit and vegetables with a plastic knife, and laying them on a platter), he’s more likely to eat the fruits of his labor. Also, if your son attends child care or preschool, he’s more likely to eat well there because the hunger from active play and the peer pressure to sit down together and eat can be very positive.

Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician