Ask Sally: Kids & Food

Laughing toddler with mom

Little ones and food—what they eat, what they don’t, what they won’t—it’s one of the most vexing topics for parents. With Mother’s Day approaching, and maybe breakfast in bed for mom(!), we asked Sally Tannen, Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center to talk turkey…

My 2-year-old was a terrific eater as a baby, but he has suddenly turned picky and barely eats more than a bite of this or that. Every meal now is a struggle, and I worry that is isn’t getting the nutrition he needs. Help!

This is one of the concerns I hear most often from parents of toddlers, and understandably–so much of early parenting revolves around food. It can feel confusing when the 10-month-old who was happy to experience every new taste won’t eat more than a few bites of something, and those on the fly. But it’s a completely normal development—toddlers are on the go, their appetites have diminished as their growth rate has slowed, and except in extreme circumstances, eating less needn’t be cause for worry. I do recommend having a structured meal routine at home, eating together with your child, making it an interactive and fun experience, always putting at least one thing on his plate that you know he likes, and continuing to introduce new, healthful foods, even if they aren’t immediately accepted. I also encourage limiting snacking, which is greatly overdone and serves neither of you well. Three small meals and two snacks a day is all a toddler needs. Don’t stress if your son doesn’t eat everything on his plate, so long as he has energy and is growing and developing. If you are ever concerned about that, you should, of course, talk with your pediatrician. Otherwise, remember that the goal is not a daily one, but to raise a healthy eater with a healthy relationship with food for life.

The takeaway: There are things you can (and should!) do every day to encourage good eating habits in your child, but taking the long view will help reduce your stress over it.

What are some ways to encourage my 3-year-old’s interest in food?

Babies are so wholly dependent on parents to “deliver” food to them, that it can be hard to re-orient your approach to food as your child grows. Even very young children can become part of the process of all that is involved in feeding the family. Get your child in the kitchen with you! Kids as young as two years old can begin helping with simple tasks—tearing greens, scrubbing potatoes, stirring batter and more, and when children are involved in food prep they become far more interested in eating that food. Take young children grocery shopping with you, and involve them in decision-making. “Should we get mangoes or watermelon today?” And at home, “Should we have broccoli or carrots tonight?” It’s empowering for young children to have a voice in family matters. And if you have a greenmarket near you, go there regularly with your child, and establish a relationship with one of the farmers. “Let’s see what kind of apples Farmer Pete has today!” or “Do you think the peaches Pete told us were almost ready to be picked will be there?” Particularly if you are raising city kids, connecting them with the source of the food they eat is invaluable, and will nourish more than their little bodies.

The takeaway: To encourage your child to be interested in food, add interest! Involve her in meal planning, shopping for and preparing food. As in anything, if you want to light a spark in your child, engage her.

My daughter goes off to preschool each morning with a lunchbox with her favorite sandwich, and when I pick her up, her lunchbox holds … her favorite sandwich! Any ideas for getting her to eat at school?

Even a favorite sandwich becomes a bore when confronted with it every day. A child wants to open a box that delights her, so make things fun and change them up! What child wouldn’t be thrilled to find a few dumplings in her thermos? (microwaving the frozen kind takes less time than making PB&J). Kids love anything on a skewer, so make little kebabs (with a popsicle stick, not a pointy one) with cubes of mozzarella or bocconcini and grape tomatoes (halved, of course!). They also love to dip and dunk, so pack fresh veggies with a little container of hummus, or multigrain toaster waffles, cut in strips, with yogurt for dipping. And give a child pasta for lunch, and you will not likely get it back! A little bento box-style lunchbox with multiple compartments will let you easily pack a peeled clementine, a handful of blueberries—a variety of nibbles—and will up the fun factor for your child.

The takeaway: We eat with the eyes first, so get creative with your child’s lunchbox! It may not come back empty, but you might be surprised by how much more interested she is in its contents.

[gravityform id=”13″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”true”]

When my partner and I were kids, it was our grandmothers who made us eat our vegetables. Now parents ourselves, we are proud to feed our 4-year-old healthy meals–no sweets, lots of fresh food–and it’s her grandparents who indulge her with the kind of treats we never allow! We work hard to establish healthy habits for our daughter. Help!

It’s wonderful that you and your partner are raising your daughter in an environment where healthy eating is a priority! But it isn’t her only environment. With the great majority of your daughter’s meals being fresh and healthful, there is nothing wrong with allowing her to enjoy the cookies Grandma loves to bake for (or with) her, or have cake and ice cream at a birthday party. It clearly brings joy to the family grandparents to give your daughter special treats, and they needn’t be deprived of that. Moderate indulgences are fine for children (they’re fine for all of us!). It’s also worth considering that restricting the foods you and your partner don’t allow at home might only make them more attractive to your daughter when she is in other situations and as she grows more independent. Modeling good eating habits at home sends your daughter indelible messages. They won’t be undone by “sweet” time with Grandma or anyone else.

The takeaway: If your child is regularly “eating the rainbow”—fresh foods, a variety of fruit and vegetables—it’s fine for her to have rainbow sprinkles on her ice cream! Nourishing a child comes from more than nutrition. Special treats can fuel the soul—for those enjoying them and those bestowing them.

Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center and Grandparents Center, Sally Tannen has been supporting parents of young children, building community, and creating and offering activities and classes for babies, kids, parents and grandparents for thousands of NYC families for more than 25 years. A mother of four and grandmother of three, Sally’s personal experience continues to enrich and inform her work. Learn more at!