Fruits and veggies are a good start, but most toddler diets are missing a key nutritional element.
Family meals should feel more like bonding opportunities than chores or ordeals. But to make mealtime more positive, you have to serve foods that both meet your kids' nutritional needs and are tasty enough for children to actually eat and enjoy.
Proper nutrition involves more than fruits and vegetables, says Dr. Scott Cohen, a pediatrician, father and author of "Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby's First Year." He says DHA is another critical component. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid beneficial to brain development and cognition.
"Eighty-five percent of brain growth happens in the first three years of life," Cohen says. Infants receive vital nutrients through breastfeeding and fortified formula, but their supply dwindles when children begin eating solid food.
In fact, toddlers only average 25 percent of the recommended daily DHA intake, which is 70 to 100 milligrams. It can be easy to reach the allowance, but DHA-rich foods aren't popular items on toddler's plates. Major sources include fish, such as tuna, salmon and trout.
To improve your child's nutrition, Cohen recommends a five-item nutrition checklist:
1. Find a DHA source that works for your family
Increasing DHA in your child's diet doesn't have to be difficult. Cohen recommends trying DHA-friendly options, such as fish, or DHA-fortified foods such as pasta and milk. "One size doesn't fit all," Cohen says. "Any way toddlers can get it is good."
2. Say cheese
Cohen says toddlers should consume two to three dairy sources each day for strong bones, muscles and teeth. Common child favorites include milk, yogurt and cheese, but fortified orange juice can also do the trick.
3. Concentrate on protein
"A lot of kids don't like typical protein sources," Cohen says. Look at protein alternatives instead of battling over eggs, fish or meat your picky eater won't try. Soy products and beans are subtle substitutes.
4. Teach healthy habits
While each meal can be a step in the right nutritional direction, Cohen recommends looking at the big picture. "It's more important to teach healthy eating habits than to concentrate on volume," he says. Proper routines set children up for a lifetime of nutrition success.
5. Mix it up
Introduce a variety of food to children beyond standard favorites. "Offer three or four different options in the hope that they will eat one of them," Cohen says. Don't give up if children resist at first. It can take 10 to 12 tries before they develop preferences. "They might like it next week," he says. "The bottom line is not to stress too much. Every healthy child grows, no matter what."