Toddler eating, or lack thereof, can make parents totally nuts. I can attest to that on both fronts, as an OT and mom. In fact, I’m in the middle of it with my third child again, which is partially what inspired me to write this post. There are so many times that I’m feeding my son and I use a little trick or make a decision about how to handle his behavior and I think, “Most people don’t know to do this, and inadvertently make eating worse.” The other reason is because you guys have been asking lots of specific questions about your toddlers eating for years. I know you need this, because nobody else will really tell you, and I’m serious when I say that this plan I’m going to lay out for you can potentially prevent toddlers from becoming picky eaters. Of course, I’m not trying to underestimate the complexity of picky eating and there could be other layers to the problem if your child is already a “picky eater”. Don’t worry, I’ll give you some direction on that at the end of this post, if you need it. Also, I wanted to point out that while I will focus on toddlers between 1-2 years old, a lot of this stuff is the foundation for any kid and certainly is really effective well into the preschool years.
Why Toddlers Struggle
The year between 1 and 2 years of age is a big one in terms of feeding. A lot starts to happen that creates the picky eater perfect storm. Let’s look all the factors that contribute to toddlers becoming picky eaters:
- Onset of picky eating – It’s a well documented fact that most children enter a phase of picky eating, to some degree, in between 1 and 2. The good news is most will come out of it by 3-5 years of age. However, (this is the really important part) if the parents unknowingly handle the picky eating incorrectly (ouch, sorry to sound so harsh) it can really spiral into a severe picky eating state that can last a lifetime.
- Difficulty sitting still – A natural part of development, toddlers are made to move. Sitting still long enough to eat is an inherent challenge.
- Short attention spans – Another feature of toddlers that can make mealtimes difficult.
- Will only eat when really hungry – Toddlers (and most kids actually) haven’t learned to overeat, they will only eat if they are hungry, which doesn’t always coincide with when you think they should be hungry.
- It’s normal to eat really well for a few meals or a few days and then not for a few days -This drives parents crazy, but the pattern is real. Toddlers tend to calorie load for a few meals and will then just coast until they need the calories again. It is really hard for parents (myself included) to watch their child barely eat anything for several consecutive meals and not jump ship, doing anything just to get them to eat.
How to Prevent Picky Eating
Let’s talk about what to do, so you DO KNOW and can stop guessing, which I know is the most frustrating part. I totally get that you’re doing the best you can with the information you have, and you are here reading so you are doing a great job. If this list seems overwhelming and you’re already deep in the picky eater trenches, start with one strategy at a time in the order below.
- Stick to the routine and structure as much as possible – This includes everything from eating at a table, eating together, no grazing, offering variety, ALWAYS having one preferred food available, creating a positive atmosphere, and setting up a schedule with meals 2.5-3 hours apart. I cover these completely in Eating Basics, and highly recommend reading about them in more detail so you can totally nail this. It is the most important step!
- Don’t panic if they don’t eat anything anyways, this WILL happen – As I already mentioned, despite all your best efforts toddlers will still not eat sometimes. When this happens, try to serve a food that is highly preferred at their next meal or two. If your child goes for an extended time without eating, which is very unlikely unless they are ill, call their pediatrician.
- Keep them strapped in a booster or high chair until around 3 years of age – Remember how I said toddlers have a hard time sitting still? If they aren’t strapped in, they will likely be trying to get down several times during the meal and you will be spending a lot of energy just trying to get them to sit. If you’re able, just continue to keep them strapped the way you always have. By the way, it is totally appropriate for a child to sit in a high chair until 3 years old. I also want to mention that allowing your child to sit at the dinner table in an adult sized chair or on your lap is dangerous because without a solid base of support and proper alignment of their trunk they are at an increased risk of choking and may not be able to physically eat their food as well, which of course leads to them refusing more foods more often. Read more about proper positioning during meals.
- Use your bag of tricks first – This step is really important for toddlers because of their short attention spans and need to have some control over their little lives. Toddlers will sometimes start fussing at a meal and you don’t even know why, or they start fussing over some small grievance but continue endlessly. When this happens (or if they start trying to get down) I want you to try a couple of tricks to right the ship. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done these thing with my children as toddlers and they’ve saved a meal. Is isn’t 100%, sometimes it just doesn’t matter what you do, but they should make a big difference. You’ll notice every one of these tricks involves changing the direction of the meal, with this strategy you are taking advantage of your toddlers high distractability.
- Change the presentation – Literally, in the middle of the meal, change something about their food. If you’ve been serving them cut up chicken nuggets offer it in a strip instead or vice versa. The novelty will intrigue them.
- Get a utensil – Many toddlers often aren’t eating with utensils regularly, so go ahead and get one out. I will usually ask, “Do you want a fork,” in a high pitched and inviting voice. Then, I’ll get it quickly and poke a piece of their food on it for them and lay it down. If they already have a fork, get a different one, having Micky Mouse on the fork may get them excited and re-interested.
- Pull out a dip – Give a little squirt of a dip on their mat or tray, and show them how to dip. Experiment with different types. Toddlers usually love this, but if yours doesn’t take to it at first, keep trying. Get some dip inspiration.
- Give a stick? – If you feel comfortable, give an older toddler a toothpick, with close supervision. Oh man, they love this! While I haven’t had the chance to try them, these safe versions look really awesome.
5. Don’t get into a power struggle – Young toddlers have a really hard time understanding that they need to sit at the table or to not throw their food. I’m not saying to not teach them and use simple phrases, but its important to keep in mind that in most cases they aren’t going to understand what your asking of them. Try to take a step back from the situation and use your best judgement.
A Few Tips
- If your child doesn’t eat a good dinner and you’re nervous they’ll wake up at night, give a bedtime snack, even if it is breaking the schedule. Don’t make a big deal about it, or say, “Since you didn’t eat your dinner…” You want to just present this snack casually, if it isn’t normally a part of your schedule.
- Parents easily slide into short order cooking for toddlers because they often served them their “own” food as babies. While there is some wiggle room here, as toddlers are learning to eat more foods, this is a VERY slippery slope. On occasion, it is okay to break this rule, but use it wisely and sparingly. By the time they are 20-21 months you should no longer need to break this rule at all.
- Toddlers need much less milk than they did as babies. Once a child is 12 months old they only require 16-20 oz. of milk a day. But parents are use to relying on that bottle or sippy cup as a crutch from their baby days. It’s hard to switch gears and trust them to eat without relying on such heavy milk intake, but if you don’t, eating can really be hindered because they’ll be drinking their calories.
Applying these strategies should give you a big start in the right direction, but I know you may want to read more. You can either head to the article index, a huge vault of every post I’ve ever written organized by category, or check out some of the ones I selected below, that I think will be particularly helpful.
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