Hey Laura, help me feed my toddler!

Mitzi writes:

You have been a great help so far from my diaper issues to bug lotion. NOW HOW do I get my child (2 years and 3 months old) to eat breakfast? He doesn’t eat anything. He will snack but won’t eat. I have tried just about everything I can think of to give him but am out of ideas.

He will “snack” on toaster strudels but won’t eat them up. He will snack on fruit but nothing that fills his tummy up.

He tends to get grumpy and whiney and will only eat junk food when he is really hungry as that is fast and he knows he likes it. I would like him to not be a picky eater so that I can buy him a bigger variety of food. Veggies would be nice too!

I knew Mitzi has some special circumstances complicating her situation, so I asked for more background info.

Last August, Kolton was diagnosed with a Wilms’ tumor on his left kidney. Two days later, he was taken into surgery and his left kidney and part of his diaphragm were removed. They removed a 2.2 lb tumor. He only had to have the lowest dose of chemo, so he was very lucky. Chemo didn’t come without its side effects: he became a very good projectile vomitter, and had very low appetite, so I gave him whatever he wanted which wasn’t much. I started putting Pediasure in with his soy milk and that seemed to help. He gained weight during chemo but after we were done (Dec 24 was his last appointment; he got his clean bill of health January 12, 2010, so he is good now), he started losing weight.

Since then he has decided that he shouldn’t have to eat anything if he doesn’t want to, which is most of the time. I am worried cuz he is SO underweight and he is starting to turn into me and NEVER eat unless he is forced to (I tend to forget to eat, too). I am giving him Pediasure to make sure he gets some food.

I also asked Mitzi what he does eat, because most kids have at least a couple go-to foods that they won’t put up a fight about.

If I let him, he would always eat real hot dogs (not the good for you grass-fed ones, but he will eat the all-beef ones that I get). He would eat pizza everyday, chips, chocolate, just about any fruit! He just started eating carrots.

I have one doctor telling me not to feed him junk food, then his oncologist telling me to feed him whatever he will eat! Don’t these guys talk to eachother? :)

The first thing I did was send Mitzi to read what I’ve already written on this subject, as I knew a lot of my advice would be similar. But here are some more Mitzi-specific ideas!

Break the addictions
Don’t give in to the Mama-guilt, okay? During his cancer treatment, you did whatever it took to get food into him. Let bygones be bygones, but don’t continue the junk food cycle. Since he’s genetically inclined to not be too excited about food in general, it is all the more important that you start building good eating habits with him now.

Start weaning him off the junk food immediately. Artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners have no place in anyone’s diet!

Sugar is highly addictive - moreso than cocaine, according to this rat study! If already cocaine-addicted rats choose sugar over cocaine, there’s no way a kid is going to choose healthy, low-sugar foods over sugary ones!

Break the addiction and retrain his tastebuds now, and you’ll be saving him a world of hurt (and health issues) down the road.

Ordinarily, I might suggest cutting him off cold turkey, but since his caloric intake is already compromised, you should probably take baby steps to make sure he doesn’t continue to lose weight.

The first step is to get rid of empty calories in the form of fruit juice, soda, or candy. Then…

Max-out the nutrition of what he does eat
With a picky eater, every bite counts. You want to make every calorie he consumes a nutritionally dense one! Not only that, I think that especially given his health history, it’s important that he isn’t consuming huge amounts of chemicals and additives in his food. His body has been through a lot in two short years; try not to tax it with unnecessary, unhealthy ingredients.

To do this, you’re going to need to look closely at what he will eat, and introduce healthy versions of it. Let me get you started.

Toaster Strudels
There is a reason the nutrition facts for these nasty little guys isn’t available on Pillsbury.com. They are junk. There really isn’t one redeeming quality about them! The 4th, 5th, and 6th ingredients (after bleached white flour, water, and partially hydrogenated oils) are sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup. The “fruit” filling is only 10% actual fruit - the rest is corn starch, fillers, and artificial colors (“Red 40, Yellow 5 Blue 1, and Other Color”).

If you can’t wean him off the fruit-filled pocket taste (or yourself off the convenience of toaster breakfasts), try the Toaster Pops from Amy’s Kitchen. They’re made with organic whole wheat flour, real organic strawberries, and don’t have any artificial colors or flavors. I recently saw them at Costco - a box of 36 for $7.99. If that’s too rich for your blood, work on switching him to whole grain toast with butter and pureed strawberries or applesauce. :)

Hot dogs
Spring for the highest quality, grass-fed beef hot dogs. Grass-fed meat is vastly more nutritious - grass-fed beef contains up to 6 times the amount of cancer-fighting Omega 3’s than its grain-fed alternative.

It may be a good idea to limit his intake of hot dogs, as some studies correlate a high consumption of nitrites with an increased risk of childhood leukemia. All hot dogs (and all cured meats, for that matter) contain nitrates and nitrites, even the ones that state “No Added Nitrites” (they use celery juice as a preservative, which is naturally high in nitrites). Before you freak out too much, read this article discussing their take on the true risks involved.

Applegate Farms makes a great grass-fed hot dog. I believe Trader Joe’s might have one as well.

Pizza is potentially the healthiest thing he likes to eat! All you have to do is insure a whole wheat, preservative-free crust, (preferably organic) whole milk cheese, sauce without sugar or preservatives, and any other toppings he’ll tolerate. If you can’t get him to accept any veggies on top, consider pureeing cooked carrots, beans (for added protein!), zucchini, or spinach into the sauce.

It is dead easy to make your own whole wheat pizza crust! Pizza dough only takes one rise, and if you use quick-rise yeast you can cut your rising time to 10 or 20 minutes. Store extra in the fridge for later in the week, or make your own stromboli by folding it over leftover pizza toppings before baking. 

If you don’t have the time or volition to make your own pizza from scratch, Kashi and Amy’s Kitchen have some healthy frozen pizzas.

I didn’t find out what kind of chips! If it’s corn chips, boost the nutritional value and choose multigrain tortilla chips (I get these at Costco - they are wonderful!). If he’s a potato chip boy, try switching him to more nutritious sweet potato chips. The Terra Exotic Vegetable Chips have a great blend of taro, sweet potato, yuca, batata, parsnip, and ruby taro.

Keep a watchful eye on sodium content; most chips are very high. I like the Terra brand because they are not over-salted.

If he dips his chips, you have all kinds of nutritious, calorie-dense options!
- Hummus (if you don’t make it yourself, beef up the fat content with extra olive oil)
- Refried (or pureed black) beans and cheese (add olive oil to make it more dippable)
- Guacamole, or just mashed avocado with salt (avocados are a great source of good fat)
- Ranch dressing (Annie’s makes a good organic one)

EDITED to add: Mitzi confessed that her son’s chip of choice is Cheetos! Luckily, there are some great natural alternatives! Originial Tings Crunchy Corn Sticks gets (rave) reviews on Amazon. I like Pirate’s Booty (and their Veggie Booty) too!

Chocolate is a great disguiser of other, less tolerable flavors. I routinely serve my daughter a banana-pb-cocoa shake that has a cup of fresh spinach leaves whizzed up in it! Here’s our shake recipe:
- 1 ripe banana (frozen or not)
- 1 cup spinach
- several strawberries if you have them on hand!
- 2 TB unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 TB maple syrup or honey (or agave nectar)
- 2 TB (or more) peanut butter
- 2 TB flax seed meal, chia seed gel, or rolled oats
- 1/3 c milk or water (we use oat milk; I would recommend you use coconut milk for the added fat and calories!)

If he’s just eating chocolate plain, make sure it is good quality and preferably as dark as possible so he’s getting more of the health benefits.

If he likes chocolate pudding, make your own with whole milk (or coconut milk) or even avocado. I like these recipes because they don’t rely on refined sugar as a sweetener.

There is absolutely an appropriate time and use for nutritional beverages, and I think you are using it responsibly to boost his caloric intake in any way you can. PediaSmart is an organic alternative you might want to look into. 

I’m not sure this is really the way to go (since we’re trying to wean him away from “treat” food in general), but this mama did an amusing - and legitimate - comparison between PediaSure and chocolate icecream.

If you have the time and inclination, you can easily make high protein/calorie smoothies yourself. Using fresh ingredients means the nutrients are more bio-available, and you can control the type and amount of sugar he’s getting. Get some brown rice protein powder to blend up with whatever fruits he likes. You can sneak in some spinach, too, if you use dark berries to disguise the green flecks! If he’ll tolerate the flavor, use coconut milk for a healthy fat to make the smoothie more liquid.

PediaSure and its ilk are nutritionally complete, but since he’s not tube-fed or subsisting only on PediaSure, you aren’t going to severely compromise his health by switching to whole fruit and veggie smoothies - particularly if you are adding a protein powder to them.

Fruit is great, but it needs to be paired with a protein to really be a good snack. Dip anything in peanut (or almond, or sunflower seed, or hazelnut) butter. Serve it with cheese or nuts (or seeds - sunflower and pumpkin seeds are favorites here) out of hand.

Choosing healthy, real-food alternatives is not always cheap. But think of it this way: when you buy good, wholesome food for your family, the expense is to your wallet, not to your health.


Accommodate the snacking
Little kids have little tummies. As a general rule, our stomachs are about the size of our fist. What you may perceive as snacking may be legitimately filling up his tummy each time! If you keep a variety of healthy foods available to him throughout the day, he may end up eating more than if he’s confronted with a big meal. Giving him a wide array of small choices could make mealtime less overwhelming to a kid who doesn’t like to eat in the first place. The continual grazing is not a bad habit to get into; most of us do better when we eat frequent small meals - it keeps our energy levels up and our blood sugar from plunging. Don’t stress about “snacking” - just make sure those “snacks” are full of good-for-him foods, not the junky, empty calories that are sold as “snack foods.”

Muffin Tin Snack Tray
Two year olds are almost always picky eaters - it’s one of the ways they exert their independence. A fantastic way to encourage healthy mini-meals is the Snack Tray. He gets the illusion of choice, and you’re able to control his options. I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t love the Snack Tray!

I haven’t done a snack tray for a long time, but since I wanted to give you an example here, I put one together this morning (it took me about 5 minutes) and it was met by my nearly-4 year old with great glee! (Please excuse my crusty silicon muffin tray!)

snack tray

(From the top left: Trader Joe’s flax/chia/hempseed corn chips, blueberries, kidney beans with nutritional yeast flakes, carrot sticks, (organic grass-fed) roast beef deli slice, grapes.)

The “Muffin Tin Mom” hosts blog carnivals of themed muffin tin snack trays, so you can browse her archives and get ideas for your own. There’s also a Muffin Tin Meals Flickr group for your inspiration.

Now, the moms who get really into muffin tin snack trays go all out; it’s their creative outlet! So don’t get intimidated. You don’t have to cut fancy shapes or do special themes. The only thing I ever do is make sure to have at least 4 bright colors represented in the food choices!

If you get a covered muffin pan like this, you can keep things fresh between meals or even transport to the sitter’s house.

Keep trying
Don’t let yourself get trapped into labeling him “a picky eater” or one who “hates vegetables.” Those types of proclamations soon become self-fulfilling prophesies. Keep presenting a wide variety of new food options and remember that it often takes many exposures to a new item before a kid is willing to try it, let alone decide he likes it!

Make it a game
You don’t have to buy the Play With Your Food Game, but this little plate with matching spinner is ingenious. It could be just the thing to take his mind off of the food fight and get him to have fun eating!

Hey Laura, I think... Hey Laura, help me feed my toddler!

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