For many parents, feeding their kids is a bit overwhelming, especially in the beginning. It’s really straight forward when they are babies, right? Milk, then baby food. Simple. Things start to get a little tricky when real food is introduced and the bottles and baby food are weaned away. Those babes turn into toddlers and the eating transition can be challenging. I’m not just talking about how to get them to start eating table foods, I’ve already covered that in: How to Transition Your Baby to Table Food. It’s all the other things that come along with this transition like when, what, and where to feed them…. when and how do they feed themselves… how long should they sit in a high chair… etc.
Okay, if you weren’t overwhelmed already, I am probably overwhelming you now! Obviously, I am going to walk you through the most common mistakes parents seem to make and how you can avoid them to get your kid’s eating started with a good foundation. As an early intervention occupational therapist, these have been common problems I’ve helped parents with over and over again, and they are mostly simple things that the Pediatrician doesn’t have time to tell you or may not even know.
Staying on Baby Food Too Long
Going to get this one out of the way first. Generally speaking babies should be starting to eat table foods around 8-9 months and should be done eating baby food by their first birthday. Of course there are exceptions to this, especially if your child has developmental delays. Each child is an individual and I do want you to follow their lead, BUT often I see parents sticking with baby food way too long because it is easier or THEY are uncomfortable exposing their child to more table foods. You may think, where is the harm in it? Although most kids will move onto table foods fairly easily, some can get stuck in a rut and refuse table foods if they are kept on baby food for too long. If you need more help with this transition check out part one and two of How to Transition Your Baby to Table Food.
Abandoning the High Chair
I know the big high chairs can be cumbersome in kitchens and the trays are annoying to keep cleaning, but these seats and their ability to confine, ahem, I mean keep you child safe are the best bet for a while. Babies have learned to associate eating with this chair and toddlers are notoriously distracted. If you try to have them eat at their own little table or at a big table before the age of 2.5, you are most likely going to be in a constant struggle just to keep them sitting at the table and their eating habits will surely suffer.
There is nothing wrong with keeping your kid in a high chair or booster seat with a strap until they are 3. If you never stray from this, they won’t ever know the difference, sitting in a high chair or booster is all they have ever know. Once you let them kneel on a big chair or don’t strap them into the booster, it could be very difficult to return to the original set up.
This is my favorite strapped booster seat, I’ve used it for all my kiddos, until 3 years old and beyond really. Plus, it’s portable!
Once you do move to strap-free eating situation, lay the ground rules quickly about staying seated. If you child insists on getting down, meal time is over for them. Make sure they understand this and follow through. Click here for more info on setting up a schedule and spacing meals apart.
UPDATE: Check out 8 Steps to Keep Your Child Seated at Meals and to make sure your child is positioned correctly in the booster you are using, you’ll definitely want to head over to The Best Seated Position. You’ll find helpful pictures and the high chairs and booster seats I use and recommend.
I have to admit, this is probably my biggest pet peeve and the most prevalent error parents make. (Warning: stepping onto my soap box) Somehow our culture has evolved to constantly feeding our kids, most of the time we do this to pacify them. We hand them crackers or cookies in grocery stores, doctor’s offices, cars, parties, and even church to keep them quiet. It doesn’t always stop there. In the beginning, it can be hard to find a schedule for eating that works and leaving food out all the time can seem logical, or meal times become stressful and schedules are abandoned because it seems easier. It may be easier in the short term, but in the long run, it will become more difficult to get good eating habits established.
When kids are given snacks endlessly, the message sent is that we don’t need to sit and eat together (yes, even if it is just a snack) and that we can eat whenever we want. I think it is important to teach kids to respect meal time in it’s own right, so they can develop healthy eating habits for life. Constant snacking totally defeats this, and as I have discussed previously, snacking usually ruins their appetite. To learn 5 ways to increase their appetite, click here.
In my day job (as an occupational therapist), I see huge changes in a child’s eating when the family moves to structured, spaced out meals. At home, I also see a dramatic difference in my kid’s eating when they have snacked too frequently.
Toys at the Table
No toys at the table might seem obvious to some of you, especially parents with babies that aren’t really trying to pull this stunt yet. I assure you there will be a day when your toddler is insistent and will ultimately throw a tantrum just to have the truck or doll at the table with them. In the moment, it is very easy to give in because you are exhausted and don’t have the battle in you. However, this is a battle worth fighting, even though that toy may be keeping them in their chair, it will mostly distract them from actually eating. Sometimes it helps to place the toy in a spot where a child can see it (sometimes that makes it worse!). Either way, once your kiddo knows that you mean business about no toys coming to the table, they will stop trying.
*If your child is receiving feeding therapy, some therapeutic strategies employ the use of toys at meals.
Eat with your kids. Often when we start babes out on baby food they are on their own schedule and we focus just on feeding them at their own meal time. This should be short lived, if ever a scenario at all. If possible, it is a great habit and benefit to the baby to eat meals together. As they start to eat multiple times a day and begin table foods, try to find a way to have your eating schedules coincide. Serving your kids solo means them missing out on a variety of social interactions, as well as the powerful tool of modeling. These mini-me’s just want to emulate us, and while we all know that they observe everything that we are doing, we often forget to apply that to eating. They notice that the broccoli is on our plate and what we like to eat. Not to oversimplify, but If your kid never sees you eating the broccoli, they might not eat it either.
Please don’t fret if you have already begun some of these habits, my hope is that this information will empower you to make some changes that will lay the groundwork for good eating habits throughout your child’s life. Although it may take a little more time to undo some of what I discussed here, you can get back on track by slowly making changes. Pick one thing to focus on at a time and be patient! If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, click here for some more tips.
As always, I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment, let me know what you’re thinking or any questions you may have.
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.