- I tried eating like a toddler for a week to find out what it was like to both prepare and eat plain, nutritious meals.
- Following a toddler's diet was easier than I imagined, with the lack of spice being the most difficult part.
- The experiment changed the way I view breakfast and motivated me to drink less filling beverages in between meals.
- The preparation that goes into toddler meals also gave me a greater appreciation of how far parents go to nourish their children.
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As a single woman, I'm familiar with those "joys of cooking for one" articles and books — the pieces encouraging women to nourish themselves without needing a partner to justify the culinary effort.
It's all very romantic, the push to treat yourself as the love of your life. But I say screw self-partnering.
Instead, why not cook as if we're feeding our own imaginary kids? We all know offspring are far more special. They come from your bodily organs, whereas a partner only hails from an app or bar.
For one week, I decided to devour this concept by eating the meals of a toddling child and reporting on my findings.
I had the meal-prep covered, but I'm used to cooking with spice
I am a childless adult and damn I do eat like one. I love my kitchen time.
My mother is from a large Portuguese-Malaysian family, so I grew up with exquisite fusion dishes that took both time and spice. I was the kid with tiered steel containers of homemade dumplings and a ginger-sesame reduction to make my white-bread peers weep.
These days, living far from home, I make an effort to cook for myself. I spend Sunday shopping for fresh produce, fondling avocados with the care of a prostate specialist, smelling herbs with the vigor of a mid-level apothecary owner in the 1600s. I spend most of the afternoon preparing meals for the week. I own seven kinds of balsamic vinegar. There's chilli sauce in my bag. You get it.
It's fair to say that I had the organizational, meal-prep aspect of this eating challenge covered. I just lacked the ability to keep flavors simple.
I had to make the food bland, yet appetizing to a toddler
The last time I ate like a baby, it was when I had all four wisdom teeth extracted. The last time I ate like a toddler, I was a toddler. The last time I fed a toddler, I gave him homemade sweet potato gnocchi with burnt sage butter. Evidently, some research was required.
According to the National Health Service (NHS), children aged 12-26 months old require omega-3 to support their rapidly evolving brains, iron for healthy blood, calcium for bone growth, and protein so that they can get supremely jacked (just kidding).
As a vegetarian kidult, this meant I had to incorporate protein-rich ingredients like eggs, legumes, and dairy, and omega-3 rich ingredients like chia seeds and walnuts instead of fish.
I normally do this, but this time around I needed to make the food bland, yet somehow more appetizing to a toddler.
The NHS also recommends avoiding salt, sugar, spice, and sweet drinks like juice or flavored milk. Another takeaway from my research is that toddlers do not drink alcohol.
Toddlers also require consistent meal times each day in order to regulate their appetite. For the week, I ate breakfast at 7 a.m., lunch at 12 p.m. and dinner at the humble hour of 6 p.m.
Armed with NHS knowledge and Pinterest screenshots of "colorful fun healthy kids food," I shopped for ingredients and meal-prepped for the week.
Here's what I ate:
- Unsweetened porridge with oat milk, blueberries, coconut, and ground chia seeds
- Corn cakes with carrot sticks, cherry tomato, baby cucumber, and small cubes of cheese
- Vegetarian sausages with peas and mashed potato and cauliflower
- Toast fingers with hard-boiled egg and cherry tomato
- Homemade broccoli, spinach, walnut and cheese muffins with a side of apples and almond butter
- Tomato soup with hidden kale and lentils
- Toast shapes with blueberries and almond butter
- Corn cakes with carrot sticks, cherry tomato, baby cucumber, and hummus
- Mini pizzas with peppers and carrot
- Unsweetened porridge with oat milk, almond butter, banana, and hidden chia seeds
- Homemade broccoli muffins with a side of apples and almond butter
- Vegetable lasagne with pureed carrot, spinach, and zucchini
- Toast fingers with soft-boiled egg
- Corn cakes with carrot sticks, cherry tomato, baby cucumber, and small cubes of cheese
- Pumpkin mac and cheese with pureed broccoli
I made sure each meal was packed with nutrients and color. It needed to look fresh, exciting, and appealing to a young child.
I also chopped everything to prevent choking. Even though I'm proud of my fully-developed chewing skills, I needed to get into character.
By the end of the week, here's what I had learned.
I realized breakfast is an exercise in mental wellness
I eat breakfast most days, but it's not a priority. I scoff Vegemite toast as I'm walking out the door or ladle granola into my mouth on the train. And when I'm hungover? Catch me in the McDonalds, station-side.
My week eating like a toddler changed this. The suggested mealtimes got me out of bed earlier than usual. Rising to prepare a filling breakfast and sitting down to enjoy it was satisfying; I was starting the day by taking quality time for myself.
One parenting guide proposed that the dining table be a distraction-free zone, so the child can focus on eating. So the phone went away. As a result, breakfast became more of a sacred time, which helped me mentally prepare for work.
Eating wholesome toddler's breakfasts also made me realize that I need to eat more in the morning. Or rather, eat differently. I usually feel hungry about two hours after breakfast and end up snacking to avoid my trademark mid-meeting stomach grumbles. However, after incorporating more protein into my breakfast this week, I remained full until lunch.
Boiled egg with soldiers was my favorite breakfast of the week. Chopping toast into fingers made me eat the bread slowly instead of wolfing it down in one heartburn-inducing chomp. It also helped me savor how delicious melted butter tastes in the morning.
This week taught me that breakfast should be enjoyable. It's a reward for bothering to wake up early.
The week made me appreciate everything parents do
Sitting in the breakroom, surrounded by colleagues eating pre-made supermarket meals or last night's leftovers tossed into old Tupperware, I experienced a range of emotions.
My food stood out. It looked so curated. Most adults don't compartmentalize every single ingredient in this way.
As I gazed down at the cheese, Emily Blunt's iconic "The Devil Wears Prada" bit came to mind: "Right before I feel I'm going to faint, I eat a cube of cheese." Perhaps my colleagues would wonder if I was on a crash diet.
At the same time, I felt strangely proud of my lunch. When I looked at the chopped carrots and perfectly bite-sized tomatoes, I had to admit it looked like love had been put into it. As a child, I never fully appreciated the effort my mother put into my lunches every day. Looking back, I wish I thanked her more.
As I usually bring leftovers for lunch, having such a basic meal made me recognize the freedom that comes with not having to heat up food, too. With my packed container of goods I was more willing to head out for a picnic-style lunch. Fun!
I learned to stay away from prunes — and filling drinks
One parenting tip I received was to finely dice prunes and sneak them into meals. I presumed this was another parental stealth tactic to summon stools out of their children, only I didn't understand just how well it would work on me. I will not be using this ingredient in the future.
Another toddler diet tip was to drink water between meals, instead of juice or milk, as these will only lead to "mealtime battles." Therefore, rather than drinking a mid-afternoon hot chocolate — which never fails to make my jeans stress against a bloated stomach — I stuck to water.
The disciplined nature of mealtimes also improved my routine. Avoiding stodgy beverages between meals and skipping beer or wine with dinner made me feel lighter and more ready to exercise later that evening.
Sometimes hunger is actually just boredom
Once I got into the mindset of eating to nourish a child, it was easier to refrain from eating junk and drinking alcohol. If I was in doubt about giving into my desires to demolish a block of chocolate or a pint of beer, I'd ask myself: "Would I want my niece or nephew to have this?"
One parenting guide implores parents to find out whether their child is actually hungry. "Try distracting him with a fun activity — he might just be bored!" said Strong4Life. The presumption of gender aside, I figured this information would be useful.
When I found myself wanting to eat between meals, I took myself for a walk. Turns out it makes sense to step away from my desk instead of reaching for snacks.
The toddler diet changed the way I look at breakfast
Forgoing my standard dash of hot sauce was the most difficult part of the week, but eating basic meals with mild flavors made me appreciate the simple goodness of individual ingredients. In my typical diet, I would be less inclined to notice the sweetness of a cherry tomato or the umami hit of cheese because these would be drowning in Cholula.
In a millennial world where Sunday drinks and mid-week work meetings are likely to run overtime, I wouldn't be able to keep this rigid diet going, but there are elements that I plan to take away.
By following a toddler's diet, I found that instead of lunch being leftovers, a selection of fresh vegetables — that aren't just salad — is an easy way to add variety to the midday meal.
I also learned that my breakfast lacks protein. I'm not being filled up with toast and granola alone. So, I'll add more protein-rich ingredients like eggs, scrambled tofu, or peanut butter to my morning routine.
In terms of mindfulness, I hope to make more time to sit down and eat breakfast. This won't be realistic on days that I'm so beer-brained I press snooze six times, but I'd like to try.
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