Mealtime with a toddler can be busy, messy, and chaotic while they are learning how to eat independently. As a toddler’s tastes mature and their skills develop, so does their interest in trying a wider variety of foods that they can feed themselves.
Toddlers can learn to eat what the rest of the family eats. It just takes some preparation, creativity, and patience. If your family eats many spicy foods, offer your toddler a more mild version until their taste buds get used to it. For soup, some families serve the solid parts and the liquid part separately to increase the likelihood of their toddler consuming more nutrition. You don’t need to make a separate meal for your toddler, but you can present it to them in a way they can be more successful with it.
Set regular mealtimes
Set up a predictable mealtime routine for your toddler, with your usual meals plus a couple snacks in between. Toddlers typically need to eat 6 times a day. By limiting snacks and drinks to particular times, your toddler will be more hungry for meals, so they may eat more of the healthy foods you have prepared for them. They are also learning to recognize how “hungry” and “full” feel in their body.
Eat meals together
Toddlers learn a great deal about eating and mealtime through watching others. When possible, eat meals together as a family at a table. Not only is it a chance to model healthy eating habits, but an opportunity to give your child positive attention. We learn social skills and manners during meals, as well as independent eating skills. Remember toddlers are watching and listening to everything you do and say!
Expect a mess
It can be hard to stay calm when your toddler is dropping peas on the floor. Think about how they are learning about how the world works; gravity is so predictable, right? They may “play” with their food; this is their way of exploring it. We learn to tolerate a variety of textures and temperatures through repeated exposure. Remember that it is through trial and error that toddlers learn how to eat without help.
Think of how they tell you they are done with the meal. Many families teach their toddler the sign for “all done.” It is important to respect when your toddler lets you know, so they can recognize how it feels when their body tells them that they are full, and that they learn to stop eating. This is part of learning good eating habits.
Have everything ready before you bring your child to the highchair or table. This avoids having a hungry child waiting impatiently or getting restless. If possible use a high chair or booster seat at the table and unbreakable plates and cups. You may also want to use spoons and forks specially for young children that are sized for them, soft to their mouths and not a choking hazard. Remember to have napkins or wash clothes at the ready!
Introduce one food at a time
Toddlers can be choosy about what they eat, but it’s important that they eat a variety of different foods. Slowly introduce your child to new foods by letting them try one new food at a time. Too many new foods at once can feel overwhelming to a toddler. Start with small amounts of the new food along with food you know your toddler enjoys eating. If your toddler tries the new food, make a big celebration of it. With foods they dislike, try introducing them again in a couple weeks. It may take many tries for your toddler to like a particular food. The trick is to not make a big deal about it, calmly remove it, and try again another time. It’s OK for your toddler to not like something–the goal is for your child to eventually eat a wide variety of foods, similar to what the rest of the family eats.
Encourage the behavior you’d like to see
Notice and give specific praise when your child uses a spoon, sits still in their seat, or tries a new food: “Makayla, look at you using your spoon! You are such a big girl! You can be proud of yourself!”
If your toddler starts to throw food, calmly tell them that if they are done, you can take the food away. Then calmly remove the food. If they indicate they want the food back, you can offer the food again. You could use a phrase like, “Food is for eating, not for throwing. You can have your peas again once your body has calmed down.”
Parenting requires patience
Learning how to eat, waiting patiently for a meal, table manners—these skills take time to grasp and lots of patience from you, as a parent. Just remember that the season of messy meals, having upsets over “foods that are touching,” choosing playtime over mealtime, is short lived. Soak up these moments—as messy as they may be.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis, and Lynne Grilley.
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