Independent eating means more than a reprieve from playing airplane spoon. It's an important milestone. As your toddler learns to feed herself, she's working to master important fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. You probably don't remember, but learning how to feed yourself is tough—and will require your patience, encouragement and steady hands.

According to the 2004 Start Healthy Feeding Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers, outlined by the American Dietetic Association and the Gerber Products Company, parents can best help by making meal time an engaging and entertaining experience. So lay down a tarp, prepare for a mess and replace the airplane game with these stimulating, healthy foods that will encourage her to take the reins herself.

  • Cheese. There's nothing quite as motivating as gooey cheese—she'll want to reach out and grab it without waiting for help from you. Plus, this snack will give her the calcium she needs to develop healthy teeth and bones. Cut cheese into die-sized cubes and avoid hard varieties in favor of soft, firm ones that will melt in her mouth as she wolfs them down.
  • Vegetables. When presented in the right way, veggies can be visually appealing to your little one. Cut pinky-sized strips and mix stimulating colors like red bell pepper, yellow squash and purple eggplant. Red foods boast lycopene, which inhibits cancer development. Yellows have beta carotene for healthy eyes and purples have phenolic compounds that boost immune function. If she adopts a no-veggie policy, pediatric dietitian Sharon Millan recommends that you "pair foods she likes with foods she doesn't." Dip the strips in hummus or salad dressing to get her started, and soon she'll eat them on her own.
  • Fruit. Start her day with fruit to get more quality time with your morning coffee and newspaper. A mix of sugar and stimulating colors are hard to resist. In addition to a host of important vitamins and minerals, fruit helps regulate her blood sugar and keep her appetite healthy. Slice soft fruits—such as strawberries—raw, but steam hard apples and pears. Take out any seeds, place the fruit on a plate and let her loose.
  • Sandwiches. "Parents should be creative when preparing food for toddlers," suggests Millan. Use itty bitty cookie cutters to create bite-sized sandwiches for her to munch on. Always choose whole grain bread over whole wheat or white, but skip bread with seeds, which could present a choking hazard. Whole grains protect against obesity as well as provide nutritious fiber and vitamins. Slather on heart-healthy hummus, thin veggies and strips of lean meat for a satisfying snack.
  • Cereal. The small pieces of healthy whole grain cereal come in fun shapes, and are an optimal size for little fingers. Avoid brands with small, hard pieces such as raisins and peanuts. Toss a cup of cereal a small container and let her munch on dry bits as a supervision-free snack.
  • Hot dogs. Cut grown-up dogs in quarters to make them a perfect fit for your toddler's tiny mouth. Look for brands with the lowest sodium and "no nitrates" on the label. If she's hesitant to tackle the treat, add some colorful dipping sauces. Encourage her to swirl the sausages around in the sauce like edible paint brushes. As she discovers her inner Picasso, you'll get a few free minutes for your own lunch.
  • Mini quiche. It's never too early for a little fine dining—and eggs are high in choline which will help her brain develop. Why not stick with scrambled? The Healthy Eating Guidelines advise that the earlier you expose her to different tastes and textures, the less likely you'll be growing a picky eater in that high chair—so bring on the amuse bouches! As long as they're soft and cut into pieces that are one-square inch or smaller, she can grab and eat them on her own.
  • Oatmeal. Oatmeal is great for toddlers because it sticks to a spoon—and it's nutritous to boot. Utensil use requires a lot of hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, so giving her sticky food will help her practice. While she eats, keep your own spoon handy. Jump in to help when necessary so she doesn't starve on her way up the steep learning curve.

Keep these foods in high circulation and you'll be giving your toddler a big head start. Keep mealtime a fun and engaging experience and the colors, shapes and flavors will motivate her to eat on her own. And the healthy eating habits she'll build will give her a nutritious foundation for a healthy, long life.