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The Great Toddler Feeding Obstacle Race
A Mother's Day special issue
Happy Mother’s day weekend, folks! Last year, I wrote about the ultimately humbling loss-of-control experience that is motherhood. And today, we are continuing on that journey and keeping it real. Got a toddler? More than one? Expecting one? Raised one? (Congrats!) If your answer is no, many of these strategies will work on picky adults too, there’s no discrimination here at We Ate Well! Also, I would love to hear about your own journey in the comments below. Or hit reply.
But first: Are you in the NYC metro area? Looking for a foodie Friday evening with your partner or perhaps a girls’ night? Please come say hi at my first book tour event in the city - I’ll be cooking for you!
Maggie Zhu of the wildly popular blog Omnivore’s Cookbook and I are hosting a cooking+tasting event on June 2nd, 6-8pm at in downtown Manhattan at the Yondu Culinary Studio. Maggie’s new cookbook, Chinese Homestyle, is a scrumptious plant-based take on Chinese home cooking.
We will dish about our culinary journeys, Asian heritage, and what plant-based means to us. Most importantly, we will be cooking and serving bites from both cookbooks, along with drinks!
Signed copies of Chinese Homestyle and The Vegetarian Reset will be available for purchase at the venue, or can be reserved with your ticket (free admission when you purchase both books).
Feeding Pesky Toddlers
My little girl, Mira, started to eat solids at 6 months like most. With solid grandparent backing, she subsisted purely on a diet of khichdi (rice + lentils + mild spices + lots of ghee + mashed veggies) and yogurt rice (South Indian roots!) for about 1.5 years. That’s right - she ate that for lunch and often for dinner too! Breakfast was a ragi (millet) porridge with fruit. Occasionally there would be a dosa, idli, roti or pasta thrown in the mix. She ate well. It was easy, predictable and I was coasting - this was easy!
Alas, it was too good to last. In hindsight, the pandemic bubble played a big role as she was mostly home and not exposed to other eating behaviors or temptations. The situation unraveled all of a sudden when she turned 2 and started preschool.
She went off vegetables (CoComelon, I blame you!)
She went off lentils
She tasted her first juice at a birthday party
My husband gave her, ahem, chocolate
She only wanted the whitest of white carbs (I was writing my low carb cookbook at this point and was aghast at the irony of it all)
Desperation struck. Mealtimes had become torturous sessions of prepping one entrée after another, with a string of rejected dishes on the counter (and yours truly too often collapsing on the couch with a glass of wine).
I had recently started following the toddler experts account Big Little Feelings on social media. They offered a course, which also had a section on feeding strategies. And this is how I came upon what I now affectionately call the ‘Thali’ method. Now, what follows is a pretty brief and lacking summary, so if you have toddlers, I could not recommend their course enough (I went back to it for pacifier weaning and tantrum handling strategies, too). No affiliation here, just a satisfied customer.
Basically, you put a bunch of different stuff on the plate. Some stuff that you know will be a slam-dunk, and some experimental. If you’re providing dessert, add that to the plate as well. The idea is to not make any food highly covetable by withholding it. Don’t talk up any food (“ooh this looks so yummy”) - kids have a great radar for this and will suspect something immediately. And act cool. If they eat it, fine, if they don’t, no big deal, next time. Tell a story, watch TV, make meals a normal fun time like anything else. Repeat after me - offer variety and act cool.
And it worked like a charm! The first time, and most times after that. It probably helped that Mira is at her root a foodie and enjoys variety, like, ahem, her mama. She is still always excited to see what’s on her plate. I don’t mean to make it sound easy, but this is what happened for us. Every child is different. To be clear, there are still meals that are challenging, but it’s the 20% now, not the 80%, which makes all the difference.
These days, mealtimes feature a rotation of mains - roti, pasta, dosa, rice, omelet, pancake; a couple of sides - avocado, apples, strawberries, cheese, yogurt, and usually a little junk (chips, popcorn). And sometimes, dessert.
Here are a couple of examples of meal composition:
For those that love the plate, we got it from the London Zoo and it’s the current favorite.
We are still working on the vegetables. (If you have my book, you know this.) Broccoli has definitely been eaten a few times, and is apparently the favorite. Recently, a love for mushrooms has also been professed (interesting because I’m a mushroom tolerator, not a fan). I say all this with a healthy dose of skepticism because the one constant with toddlers is…change! I once tried oatmeal-banana muffins which were adored, but never eaten again. The Egg White Bites from Starbucks will be loved, my copycat version won’t be touched. It is what it is. Except tomatoes. No tomatoes, ever. I made a pasta salad with her class once and I swear, the 3-year-olds unionized against tomatoes. But as the months pass, I see the range of what is attempted often increasing - for example, blueberries -after being scorned for years, are now back in fashion.
For now, my main nutrition strategy is to be sneaky. Here are some tactics:
Adding almond flour to pancakes for more fiber and protein
Air-fryer marinara - this is a non-recipe take on a soup from my cookbook and essentially consists of dumping a whole shopping bag of vegetables in my air-fryer - tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic. Drizzle generously with olive oil and air-fry for 15 minutes at 400F/200C (you can also do this in the oven, turn up the heat to 450F/230C). Then blend. When I have no time to make mine, I use this sauce. They also used to have an awesome cauliflower-mushroom sauce which I use and advertise as a “no-sauce” pasta :), but I can’t seem to find the link so I will have to make my own next time. Oh and there’s a really delicious green-pea pesto in my cookbook (Pesto Paneer Gnocchi, page 73)
Subbing lentil pasta - Zenb is my favorite alternative pasta. It’s made from yellow peas and has a pretty neutral taste compared to chickpeas or other lentils. It also has 3x the fiber compared to regular pasta. I usually rotate between regular pasta and this one.
Adding kefir, Greek yogurt or nut butter in smoothies - [Side note- I was petrified she would have a nut allergy and gave her this supplement in her first year. Not sure if it did anything but we are currently allergy-free]
Adding Greek yogurt to pesto sauce - this worked great and I got an extra hug after a yummy meal! Need to try it a second time to be sure :)
Making my own mango lassi- each bottle (store-bought) comes with ~30g added sugar in a serving. Is that really necessary? You can make a fabulous mango lassi with a fraction of that added sugar - mangoes have enough sugar! And it goes down just as easily.
I’ve also found that books are great tools to introduce new ideas in a low pressure setting at bedtime. Some of my recommendations:
Social Media Inspiration:
While I certainly have a whole foods focus in my own diet, I no longer burst an artery when Mira eats 2 fruit leathers and then asks for dessert. It is true that at a younger age, the body can usually (but not always!) handle these things more easily. She does love to help me cook (standing in her kitchen helper step stool), and is an excellent chopper of things. Cucumber, paneer, peppers, no problem!
One thing is for sure - it’s a moving target. But by god, I’ll keep trying.
As I finish this very long post, I do want to say - DO NOT beat yourself up if you haven’t done any of this, or don’t have the time to. This is just my journey - I have a flexible schedule, an excellent nanny and a generally easy kid and I know I speak from a position of privilege. Also food is basically my life right now. But yes, there will be days when 2 fruit leathers and ice-cream is dinner. Maybe today, it’s close to 90 degrees in NYC. And that’s OK, mama. Happy Mother’s Day. xoxo
Gift a copy of The Vegetarian Reset for Mother’s day!
And cook one of these recipes for Mom to make it extra special.
Amazon (20% off - guessing this wont last after Mother’s Day)
If you already have my cookbook
Join my cookbook group here on Facebook and share your pictures as you cook along from the book! You can also ask questions about recipes and I will help in any way I can.
Write an honest review for The Vegetarian Reset on Amazon or Goodreads and I’ll send you a copy of The Glucose Revolution! (US/UK/AUS/CAN only - subject to availability). Reply to this email to send a screenshot of your submission and claim your book.