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Toddlers are at a unique time in their lives. They are finally able to really explore and experiment with the world around them. They may have developed a strong set of likes and dislikes and enjoy being able to assert the choices they make. As most parents of toddlers know, this assertion of choices all too often applies to food. Toddlers can sometimes be very picky eaters!

In order to ensure that your toddler is getting the proper nutrition, it’s first helpful to know what and how much he/she should be eating. According the Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children, released in March 1999 by the USDA, children two to six years should eat the following daily:

Grains: 6 servings (one serving = 1 slice bread, 2-3 graham crackers, 1oz ready-to-eat cereal, or 1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta)

Vegetables: 3 servings (one serving = 2 cooked broccoli spears, 1 1/2 whole carrots cooked, 1/2 cup tomato or spaghetti sauce, or 10 french fries)

Fruits: 2 servings (one serving = 3/4 cup orange juice, 1 medium fruit such as an apple or banana, or 1/2 cup canned fruit)

Meats: 2 servings (one serving = 1 oz lean cooked meat such as poultry or fish, 1 egg, or 2 oz lunchmeat)

Milk: 2 servings (one serving = 1 cup milk, 8 oz yogurt, 1 cup pudding, 1 1/2 oz cheese, or 1 1/2 cups ice cream)

This may seem like a lot of food for one small toddler to eat in a single day, especially if he/she is very picky, but with a little creativity and perseverance, your child will be eating a healthy diet in no time. Here are several steps you as a parent can take to ensure your child receives the nutrients she needs.

1. Substitute

If your child refuses to eat vegetables, offer him/her a fruit instead that contains similar nutrients. For example, if he/she refuses carrots, try peaches or nectarines, which are also good sources of Vitamin A. If he/she refuses broccoli, try canned oranges or even orange juice, an excellent source of vitamin C. You may also want to try a carrot and fruit juice blend, such as V8 Splash, which contains 100% of the RDA for both vitamins C and A in a single serving.

Growing children also need about 800 mg of calcium each day; however, persuading a toddler to drink milk can sometimes be difficult. Try adding chocolate flavored drink mix or serving milk in the form of a milkshake. Offer other dairy products each day, such as yogurt or cheese slices. Fortified cereals, cereal bars, and even some brands of graham crackers are also good sources of calcium.

A child at this age needs about 23 grams of protein each day, a requirement that can be satisfied by choosing two servings from the meat group. If your toddler is not a meat eater, make sure he/she gets enough protein through other foods, such as dairy and pasta. For example, both a 1/2 cup serving of macaroni and cheese and a 4 oz cup of yogurt contain about 5 grams of protein each, one slice of American cheese contains 7 grams of protein, and one scrambled egg contains 6 grams of protein.

2. Be Patient

Young children often need to be introduced to a new food many times before it becomes a regular part of their diet. By continuing to offer those fruits and vegetables at each meal, your toddler, although he/she may refuse them, is learning what a balanced meal full of variety looks like. His/her refusals may be very frustrating for you, but be patient. While you cannot force him/her to eat something, remember that you are laying the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

3. Serve As A Role Model

Parents serve as role models in many ways, and healthy eating can be one of them. Show your child that you enjoy a variety of healthy foods, and chances are he/she will adopt that habit someday too.

4. Provide Healthy Snacks

Make the most of your toddler’s morning and afternoon snack by providing healthy alternatives to junk food. For example, instead of cookies, offer graham crackers or a cereal bar. A few handfuls of fortified cereal are also a good choice. Other toddler favorites include yogurt, ready-to-eat pudding, apple chunks, banana slices, cheese and crackers, and even macaroni and cheese. Finally, while snacks like pretzels and crackers may not be packed with nutrients, they are a healthier choice than chips or candy.

5. Make It Fun

Sometimes to a young child, the appearance of the food is more important than the actual taste. Serve pasta in fun shapes, such as choo-choo wheels or seashells. Offer macaroni and cheese shaped like your child’s favorite cartoon characters. Many yogurts also have animals or dinosaurs on the carton, and kids will have fun choosing which one they want to eat. Also, arrange pieces of fruits or vegetables into the shape of a favorite object. For example, if your toddler loves trucks and cars, you may want to create a truck-shaped fruit salad with banana slices for the tires, square- and rectangle-shaped pieces of watermelon for the truck body, and apple chunks as the “rocks” being carried in the back of the truck. Let your child’s interests guide your imagination.

As your toddler learns how to gain control of the world around him/her, his/her refusal to eat certain foods will probably disappear with time. Offering a variety of foods and showing your child that healthy foods can be fun to eat will ensure that he/she is on the road to becoming a healthy adult.