My toddler loves to play pretend.Is there a way I can use that to help encourage healthful eating? Absolutely! This normal developmental stage is when toddlers learn about social interactions and behaviours. You can put it to work for you in helping to shape your toddler’s ideas about nutrition.
Since imitation is a big part of early pretend play, start with your own attitude. Show enthusiasm for new dishes and model eating a wide range of foods. Talk about how delicious the food tastes and how nutritious it is. Let your child feed you (with either real food or pretend food) and respond with an mmm. Encourage her to use a spoon or fork.
For a difficult eater, jazz up your presentations. Slice sandwiches into fun, unexpected shapes. Use cookie cutters or a squeeze bottle to form creatively shaped pancakes (hearts, faces, and so on). Garnish a bowl of cereal with fruit pieces arranged on top as if they were eyes, a nose, and a mouth.
You can also share imaginary meals, using toy dishes and foods. Choose wood (or plastic) fruits, veggies, and protein-rich foods in favor of toy cupcakes and cookies. This is a great way for your child to practice serving and “eating” nutritious meals. You might even introduce a play kitchen with pots and pans, which will allow her to imitate what she sees grown-ups doing during meal preparation.
Another strategy is to infuse real lunches or snack times with an element of fantasy by turning them into tea parties or picnics. Make a little game out of a meal for your toddler by inviting her stuffed animals and toy characters to attend, and letting her help host and serve.
All of these approaches will help give some incentive for your toddler to eat healthy.
—Gary C. Morchower, MD, pediatrician and author of The 1001 Healthy Baby Answers: Pediatricians’ Answers to All the Questions You Didn’t Know to Ask