Toddlers are not too young to be learning the basics of good nutrition. Fun activities can lay a foundation for wise eating later.
It’s never too early to begin teaching children about good nutrition. Even toddlers can benefit from fun activities designed to inspire them to like healthy foods. In fact, children who are not exposed to junk food while they are young are far more likely to choose healthy foods when they have the chance. These hands-on projects can also build a child’s vocabulary and understanding of concepts foundational to future learning.
Food picture cards: Many activities can be done with a set of cards with food pictures on them. To make your own, look through old magazines for simple pictures of healthy foods. Make sure the food is easily identified and looks like what the child might be served. You can look for these with the toddler. Look for peas, carrots, lean meats, a bowl of oatmeal, wheat bread, cooked brown rice, salad, an apple, a banana, peanut butter, etc. Some older toddlers might be able to help cut them out, but you will probably have to do most of it. Tape or glue these pictures to index cards.
Sort the food groups: Sort the cards by food group into piles. Be sure to name each food clearly. You could also let the child sort the pictures by color, or by whether the item is hot or cold when it’s eaten.
Feed Freddy a balanced diet: Draw a face on a box. Cut a hole for the mouth. Use the food cards to “feed” the face a variety of healthy foods.
Beans for protein: compare different beans. Sort and wash ½ cup of each of 5 or more types. Choose beans that look different, like pinto beans, navy beans, black turtle beans, Limas, large or small. Look for interesting beans, like Jacob’s cattle (speckled) beans. Talk about the interesting names. Wash the beans together in a colander under running water. Feel the wet beans. Put them into a big pot for soaking.
When the beans are soaked, the adult can proceed with making the soup. Drain off the water, fill the pot with new water, and season the beans with 1 tsp. each salt, baking soda, cumin and chili powder. A little browned ground turkey is tasty in it too. Serve the soup with salad or fresh fruit.
Make vegetable soup together: With a stiff brush under running water, let the child scrub a carrot, a potato, a zucchini, and any other fresh vegetables you have. Peel an onion together and talk about if you like the smell. These are all part of a very important food group – vegetables. Adult makes the soup.
Make smoothies together: Have a variety of smoothie ingredients available. For safety, remove the blender from its base and don’t allow children to put their hands into the container. Let the child place small amounts of desired ingredients into the blender, then whiz it up! Suggested ingredients include fruit juice, yogurt, fresh, canned, or frozen fruits, raisins, peanut or other nut butters, wheat germ, nutritional yeast, grated carrots, coconut, carob powder or chips, honey, or other healthful sweeteners. Use your imagination.
You put the blender container back on the base and do the whizzing. Talk about how noisy the blender is! Pour your smoothies into cups and drink with a large straw.
Rainbow fruit salad: Brightly pigmented fruits and vegetables are generally considered to be more nutritious than their paler counterparts. Find a rainbow of fruits to arrange together on a plate – purple grapes (cut in half to reduce choking hazard), blueberries, green kiwi slices, yellow-orange peace slices, and bright red strawberries. Eat with fingers.
Food pyramid poster: Draw an empty food pyramid on a large sheet of paper. Together with your toddler, glue food pictures in the appropriate sections.
Build your own food pyramid: Collect flat corrugated cardboard boxes of varying sizes to label with the food groups. Tape them closed and cover with plain paper if they have writing on them. Label your largest box, “breads.” A good size for this box is about 20 inches long, 20 inches wide, and 5 inches high. The vegetables box could be about 10” by 16” by 4” tall. The fruits box could be about 6” by 16” by 4” tall. The next layer will be the dairy block at about 7” by 12” by 4” tall, and the meat and legume block at 5” by 12” by 4”tall. The little “fats and sweets” block could be a 4” cube. Glue food pictures on the appropriate box. Now you and your toddler can build your own food pyramid. Perhaps you can find stickers to use to decorate these boxes.
Food pyramid snack: Talk about the food groups in the food pyramid while you make this healthy snack together. At the base is a graham cracker, which is a bread or grain product. On this place grated carrot (vegetable) and raisins (fruit – the child probably doesn’t know that a raisin is a dried-up grape. Tell them!) For the next layer of the pyramid, stir together low-fat cream cheese or cottage cheese (dairy) and peanut butter (meat and legume group.) Place a tablespoon of the mixture on top of the carrots and raisins. At the very top of the pyramid you can place a chocolate chip or two. To make this snack easier to eat, squish it together with another graham cracker on top.
Test foods for fat – talk about what fat is. Find pictures of fat animals. Talk about why a person will feel better if they don’t eat fat. Set different foods on a piece of brown paper bag to check for fat. Try potato chips, carrot sticks, muffins, cookies, etc. Foods that contain fat will leave a translucent smear or spot on the paper.
Small children, like all of us, enjoy eating and can be encouraged to like nutritious foods. Have fun in the kitchen as you explore the world of healthy eating together.