Toddlers. And. Eating. Let’s sit with that for a second. I mean, it’s just absolutely nuts.
They won’t touch a bite of dinner. But then ask for a snack 5 minutes later. Or their favorite food last week… It is downright offensive that you had the audacity to serve it today. HOW DARE you cut the toast, they wanted it “BIG.” The granola bar is “broken”; they must have a meltdown because there is no way they can eat it now.
Oh, the sweet drama, paired with our very normal parental concerns on getting the proper nutrition, can be a bit overwhelming.
So first, a little PSA, if you are highly worried about your child’s nutrition, please seek advice from a dietician or pediatrician (I am neither).
But if you’re interested in quick tips for creating a less picky toddler and a less stressful mealtime, we’ve got you covered! These are strategies that have worked miracles for both of our families.
These tips will help create a foundation of good habits for your child and alleviate some of the pressure off you around your toddler’s eating.
So let’s start to silence that oh-so-well-intentioned but annoying voice in your head. Did they eat enough? Too much? Did even a tiny piece of broccoli make it into their bellies?
Defining Your Role In Your Toddler’s Eating
This is the best part. 3 things are your responsibility.
See, we’re slowly taking some pressure off; stick with me.
You, as the parent, get to decide when your toddler is offered food, what foods your serve, and the example you are setting for your toddler.
Serve meals and snacks at regular intervals
Picky eating truth #1: Grazing on snacks all day promotes picky eating. The issue is when they graze all day, they are less likely to eat the meal you prepared. This is both frustrating for the time you spent making the meal, and these grazing types of snacks typically tend to be less nutritious. They’ll also start to prefer this constant grazing on snack food. Your toddler is a creature of habit and picks up on what they can or can’t do quickly.
So decide on a feeding schedule that works best for your family! This typically looks like 3 meals and 2-3 snacks offered every 2-3 hours. Our days are never exact, but this is currently what a typical day of eating looks like in our house with my 2.5-year-old:
7:30 – breakfast
9:30 – snack
11:30 – lunch
3:00 – snack
5:30 – dinner
Picky Eating Truth #2: Serving a favorite food after a meal because you’re concerned they’re still hungry promotes picky eating.
Example: Lunch is over, and they didn’t eat much. So they tell you they’re hungry, and you give them a yogurt which you know they love (even though it’s not snack time). The problem is your toddler is FREAKING smart. They will put it together, “I don’t have to try anything new or eat my lunch, because if I don’t eat it, I’ll get yogurt!”
See how this encourages picky eating? There is a reward for NOT eating lunch!
That’s where this schedule is so helpful; your toddler will learn when their next opportunity is to eat, and it leads to more successful mealtimes!
Shift your idea from a quick “snack” to a “mini-meal.”
The foundation of these mini-meals is a protein + fruit and/or vegetable but bonus points for healthy fats and whole grains!
Here’s what this “mini-meal” accomplishes:
- Keeps your toddler more satisfied between meals
- Another opportunity for your child to consume nutritious food
- Less pressure if they don’t eat as much at a meal because their next opportunity to eat something satisfying will be in a few hours
- Peace of mind for you. You know they won’t go hungry or need the constant snacking. You don’t have to think about if they need a snack; you have a schedule!
Let’s keep it going on diminishing stressful mealtimes for you (which, in turn, is less stressful for your toddler). This is a perspective change. Instead of focusing on each individual meal, think of your toddler’s nutrition needs over a week.
This can make mealtime more enjoyable when you’re not on the edge of your seat wondering if your toddler will touch their broccoli. How can you get in variety over the week?
This is the best part of these mini-meals and taking a weeklong approach.
When you’re serving 5-6 meals and “mini-meals” a day.
7 days a week.
That’s 35 to 42 opportunities for your child to eat in a week.
Some meals will be better than others, and that’s totally normal! Vegetables will make it past their lips, and their body will get inadequate nutrition with consistency and routine.
You decide what food is served to your toddler. This should include various foods and not only the “kid-friendly” type of meals (which have a place too). The keyword here is variety. Which will help you avoid these common pitfalls that promote picky eating.
Picky eating truth #3: Only serving your toddler their favorite foods
Picky eating truth #4: Serving your toddler a separate meal from the rest of the family
Picky eating truth #5: Serving whatever your toddler requests on-demand (short-order cook)
Please know, it is not too late for your child if you’ve been caught up in these picky eater patterns. They all come from a place of love and not wanting a battle at mealtime! I get it. But it’s a short-term fix that doesn’t benefit them long term. So if this is new, it will be an adjustment. A few tantrums, but it will get better!
Tips for handing what is served
Allow your child to have unlimited servings
The idea is that you never want your child to feel restricted because restriction leads to obsession and potential patterns of binging later in life. The more a food feels off-limits, the more they want it! I.e., only allowing one slice of toast.
So to balance out that they won’t be eating all day with this new schedule, when it’s time to eat, they have unlimited access to the food you’re serving for the meal. They feel in control (a favorite feeling for a toddler), but within reason, because you decided the food they are consuming.
Provide a familiar “safe food”
With every meal or snack, serve a food you know your toddler typically enjoys. Especially when serving something unfamiliar to your toddler or you’re unsure if they’ll eat it.
Examples in our house include fruit, toast, peas, string cheese, sweet potatoes, broccoli, hummus, yogurt, a basic pasta.
This accomplishes three things:
- You know there is something on their plate that they’ll eat if they’re hungry! And they can have unlimited servings as mentioned above.
- It’s wild. But eating truly encourages eating with these toddlers. I can’t even guesstimate a high enough number for the number of times my toddler looks at his plate apprehensively. Then they will start with safe food, like blueberries. Asks for a second helping of blueberries. And then will start to take bites of the other foods on his plate.
- Safe food is comforting. It makes a new food less intimidating when a toddler is familiar with the food on their plate. Toddlers are emotionally ticking time bombs. The familiar food helps defuse.
Serve small portions
A huge serving of a new casserole is a scary
Additionally, it cuts down on food waste. They can always ask for more!
You can still provide them with the “power of choice”
Gracie is a huge advocate of providing toddlers with a choice. So yes, you are driving mealtimes and not a short-order cook. But it is okay to offer choices! The idea is that you’re not providing a new or different meal for your toddler instead of what you are planning on serving for dinner.
Offer choices like what fruit they’d like with their toast? String cheese or shredded cheese? Simple choices are an excellent way for your child to feel involved! And as they get older, having them help create a balanced snack or mini is an excellent tool for them to learn!
There are times, I’m not prepared with a lunch plan, and my toddler might as for grilled cheese; that’s okay to serve them the food they want! But for the most part, make sure you’re driving what’s being served.
Defining your toddler’s role
Are you ready for it? You are NOT responsible for what your toddler actually eats. That is your toddler’s job. There is no coaxing or bribing them to eat. In fact, you are entirely neutral.
After you serve your child their meal, your job is essentially done. It’s time to sit down and enjoy mealtime! There is no:
“Wow! Look at you joining the Clean Plate Club!”
“You can’t get up from the table until you’ve finished your vegetables.”
“Just take one bite of each food.”
“You’ll like it! You have to eat least try it!”
You don’t comment on anything they eat. Because the more you try to pressure your toddler into eating or trying something new, the more they push back.
Or on the quantity, they eat. Because seemingly harmless comments like, “wow, you really ate a lot of that pasta!” is something they internalize. I’m being praised for eating my pasta? What if the next setting they aren’t as hungry? But they remember the praise they got for eating all their pasta? These comments can interfere with their natural ability to eat based on their hunger cues and listening to their bodies.
You got this! Here’s a recap.
And finally, here we are, mamas and dads, you’re crushing it!
Serving your toddler meals and “mini-meals” at regular intervals throughout the day.
Deciding what to serve throughout the week, which includes a variety of foods!
You’re not commenting about the food or quantity they eat. Your sweet toddler does not feel pressured at mealtimes. They are learning how to eat intuitively and self-regulate. They feel in control!
Time to enjoy the best part of mealtime, enjoying the meal together as a family!