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Toddler Nutrition Tips, Recipes and Little Lessons

Preschool kids are growing at a quick rate. Healthy food intake is important. Two Detroit teachers offer advice on portions, food groups, snacks and more.

Content brought to you by Excellent Schools Detroit

Does your tyke have an insatiable appetite? Feel unsure about portion sizes for your preschooler? Nutrition is key for those buzzing metabolisms, but little kids' diets definitely aren't the same as adults. Want to discover ideas to broaden your youngster's palate – and create healthy habits that will help them be engaged and energized when school time arrives?

You've come to the right place. Education Detroit offers insight and tips from teachers with two Detroit schools:

  • Blackwell Institute, east-side area: Andrea Poske is a high-energy Great Start Readiness Program preschool teacher who's logged 13 years at Blackwell (a dozen of those have been with Pre-K), which is a Detroit Public Schools school. "I'm the best auntie ever," she adds, always ready with fun, healthy snacks for Shelby, 7, Izabella, 8, Michael, 5, and Maximus, 2.
  • New Beginning Center – Extended Day, northwest area: Sabrina Whorton has worked here for over 20 years. She's center director, and previously both a lead and assistant teacher – but "I came in as a parent!" says Whorton, whose kids are now ages 17-31. Giving busy parents (and grandparents) healthy, manageable recipes and food advice is a big focus here.

Food Foundation

Do a bit of family inventory and consider some basics on little kids' eating habits.

The challenges

Hectic schedules and fast food are common pits for Detroit parents. "We are working more and more with younger parents," Whorton says. "They may not have gotten proper (nutrition) guidance. They're not cooking like they used to. They'll go to the McDonald's and Wendy's and Burger King."

Taking stock

That's one reason Whorton's school, New Beginning, gives parents a brief survey about their family's food preferences. If their kid won't eat something, "Is it because of religious or personal reasons?" Religion (and allergies) aside, she says, dig a little deeper. Does your child hate plain milk because you do? Examine your attitudes and habits. Little ones tend to soak them up.

Food groups

There are five – fruits, veggies, grains, protein foods (meat, poultry, seafood, beans, peas, eggs, nuts, seeds) and dairy. At Blackwell Institute, kids eat about every four hours, and nutrition is key. Breakfast includes three groups, lunch all five and an afternoon snack, two. Before dinner, Poske encourages a second snack.

Portion control

"I always say, 'the size of your fist' – that's how big their tummies are," Poske says. So a whole chicken breast or full cup of veggies? "That's too much food. We're 'force feeding' our kids." Especially with toddlers' crucial between-meal snacks, think of their intake more like five or six mini meals.

Choices

Getting kids involved is key. "We let them choose the fruit that they want" on their yogurt, says Whorton, like strawberries, grapes or orange chunks – and get busy slicing with a safe plastic knife. Chat about options, too. "Cookies: That's good choice," Poske might say. "What's a better choice?" As kids get closer to kindergarten, having them help pack their lunches is another great involvement activity.

Time to Eat!

So, what are some good food options, sources and ideas for tykes?

Snack attack

"In my family, we are all about finger foods," says Poske. Think cheese and crackers (whole grain is great), sliced green peppers or apples, pretzels, baby carrots and grapes. Whorton loves serving up ants on a log – the classic mix of peanut butter on celery stalks, topped with raisins. For a protein pop, try a protein granola bar, Poske adds; she makes sure it's 10 grams of protein and 150 calories, max. (In the final section, below, find three snacks that both teachers love.)

New tastes

We're not talking caviar here. Remember, lots of foods are "new" to preschoolers. They might just touch, smell or mouth it at first. Be patient, and if they say "yuck!" don't be afraid to try again in the future. "We also have to model," Whorton says. Congratulate them: "You tried it! How was it?" She adds, "You gotta 'fix your face' and be energetic when you bring it to kids."

Garden

Whether in a small yard plot or on a windowsill, food sprouting from the dirt gives kids a direct view of where it comes from. At New Beginning's garden, kids have helped grow radishes, lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. Herbs like parsley, cilantro and mint are fragrant, quick growers tykes will love seeing and sniffing.

Junk, once in a while

One day a week, Poske's kids enjoy a "fancy snack" – a bit more indulgent. Similarly, at home, be mindful of monitoring sweets/treats stock and, again, proportions. "Kids don't need ginormous cupcakes," Poske reminds.

Shopping

Getting to groceries can be hard, and both teachers try to connect parents with options, from Eastern Market to Meijer. Subway is "the best option for fast food," says Poske. Still, "There are good choices," says Whorton – like sliced apples and milk with Happy Meals. "Look on the menu." Even Whole Foods in Detroit (our url, once live) has reasonable options. "It's getting parents to change their way of thinking. Eating nutritionally well is not that hard," Whorton says.

Ways to Build

Here are a few extra tips on getting toddlers engaged with healthy eating.

Food prep

Making a meal? Have kids measure ingredients and chop with a safe plastic knife – "and set the dinner table!" Poske says. "That's easily done." And, from plates to forks to chairs, it reinforces counting. With supervision, Whorton allows kids to try their hand at whisks, mashers or peelers (have them practice on cucumbers). "Hold it, look at it, don't touch the sharp edges," is her approach. "The kids really, really love it." Another idea: An apron. "That gets them in the mood," Poske adds. "That's your uniform for cooking."

Discuss

Eat supper together. "So many things can transpire when you're sitting at the table," Whorton says. "Talk about your day, the food that you're eating." From prepping to eating, there's a ton of terminology, Poske points out – ingredients, measurements, equipment. "We all know that vocabulary and reading are the key to success," she says. At New Beginning, parents also "shop for words." Make up a list of terms before you hit the grocery store (entrance, cart, deli, Kroger, etc.) and cross them off as you find them. Add new words, too.

Songs and stories

For an extra dash of math, use the "One Potato, Two Potatoes" nursery-rhyme chant to count out any ingredient or measurement, Whorton says. Or have a "book feast" like kids at Blackwell. Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a perfect mix of read-aloud and eat-along fun as the title character chows through the days of the week – one apple on Monday, two pears on Tuesday, and so on.

Critique

Have your kids taste test. What's sweet or sour if you compare, say, lemon and lime? How about rhubarb? Then, Whorton adds, if kids like something, be sure to ask them to say specifically what they want (here's that vocab again).

Big picture

Help kids recognize how they feel after they've eaten something – raw granola vs. fries, for example. Whorton's kids are quick to pick up on this. "If you're not eating the right foods, then you're grumpy," she says. "You don't want to play, you don't want to share – because you don't feel like it."

Snack Recipes

Veggie Dip

Try this family favorite – from Poske's mom, Jill Poske. "It's all about a little bit of everything," Poske says. "My mom's dip is the bomb!"

  • 16 oz. jar of mayonnaise*
  • 16 oz. sour cream*
  • 3 Tbsp. onion flakes
  • 2 Tbsp. parsley
  • 3 tsp. Lawry's Seasoned Salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp. dill weed

*Can use fat-free or reduced-calorie versions

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Transfer to a container with a lid. Put in the refrigerator for a few hours to get the best flavor. Enjoy with a variety of raw vegetables like red, yellow and orange peppers, cauliflower, carrots, radishes and cucumbers.

Cheese Shapes

Who says kids shouldn't play with their food? Try this New Beginning activity.

  • 3-4 slices of cheese
  • Cookie cutters of various shapes
  • Cutting board
  • Plate

Lay out a single slice of cheese on the cutting board. Using the cookies cutters, cut out shaped piece of cheese and place it on the plate. Repeat using different cutters for each slice. Works for deli-style lunch meats, too!

Zippy Fruit Drink

Here's a handy meal-in-a-cup recipe idea from New Beginning.

  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 2 cups orange juice
  • 2 cups sherbet
  • Ice cubes

Put all the ingredients in a blender and mix until well combined. Enjoy!

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