Since the time Chase started eating solid food, it became clear to me that we were very much alone in trying to navigate our way through that new realm. Neither of his pediatricians were helpful in that department and we were left to sort of wander alone and hope we figured it out along the way. Now that he’s older and learning about his own preferences, tastes and the ability to exercise his right to abstain from eating, I feel like throwing my hands up in the air some days and letting him eat his weight in things covered in marinara sauce, since that’s all he seems to like on a regular basis. So, when the lovely Anne London, MS, RD, CD-N, of Petite Nutrition, offered up her advice on picky eating for toddlers, I was psyched, as I’m sure many of you will be too. She’s got some great, practical and easy-to-implement tips for mamas who are struggling to get their toddlers to eat. I hope you enjoy her wisdom as much as I did!
Toddler eating can drive you crazy! Toddlers specialize in it! You aren’t alone!
Moe, my son, was especially skilled at this when he was a toddler. I was not yet a pediatric dietitian, and I was sure Moe’s job in eating was to drive me completely insane. So guess what? He did. My favorite story to tell is that for six days (I kid you not), Moe literally ate only peas and blueberries. He refused ALL. OTHER. FOOD. I took the cue and tried all small circular foods I could think of…Kix cereal, mini meatballs, Israeli cous cous, mini melon balls. No, no, and definitely not. He was a late talker, so all he had to do was shake his head and flick his hand as if he were saying “take it away!” I catered; he refused. I wanted to pull my hair out. We’ve come A. Long. Way. I learned how to feed him appropriately, and he has developed a wonderful food repertoire. Our meals are pleasant and enjoyable, but trust me it wasn’t always this way.
As parents, one of our most basic responsibilities is feeding our kids. When it doesn’t go well, we feel deflated and frustrated. I experienced this first hand, and I’ve worked with many families where kids eating problems are so stressful, it negatively affects family dynamics. Here are some tips to help you with your picky eating dilemmas.
1. A structured meal schedule might be the most important part of feeding. As unglamorous as this is, for the most part, a hungry child will eat. An un-hungry child will abstain. For toddlers, here’s how it should go: Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. Each of these meals needs to be sitting at the table. The kitchen is closed in between. No snack traps, no cups of milk/juice, no crackers, no fruit. Teach your child to eat when it’s eating time, and to play/sleep/read/whatever else when it isn’t.
2. Snacks are meals too. Toddlers cannot meet their nutrition in three meals. Their snacks are just as important. Think mini-meals. Don’t offer goldfish for every snack. Use the snacks to offer balanced nutrition (think more than one food group together).
3. You cannot make your child eat. It isn’t your job and you don’t feel their hunger cues. Trust your child to do the eating. Young children are amazing self- regulators of hunger. They eat when they are hungry, they stop when they are satisfied. All you can do is select the food you want them to eat (and include foods they are capable of eating), offer it to them at the table, and keep to the meal schedule. Let them be in charge of the eating.
4. Don’t focus on what they eat in a day. Toddlers are famous for eating nothing one day, and gorging themselves the next. Devouring protein for two days, refusing it all for the next three days. When looking at nutrition over the course of a week or two, (not a day) toddlers usually get the nutrition they need.
5. Toddlers’ serving sizes are tiny. If I had a dollar for every parent who told me their toddler didn’t eat, I’d be rich! I used to feel that way too. Toddler portion sizes are in tablespoons. Two bites here, three bites there. They get what they need. They need to eat more often because their stomachs are small, and they cannot eat the same portions as you or I at a sitting.
6. Toddlers are in search of control. Give them appropriate control. Toddlers are a lot like teenagers. They have a little bit of newfound freedom, but are still very much reliant on you. My favorite child psychologist always says, “toddlers can control two things: what goes in and what comes out.” If you try to control what they eat (from what you are serving), they dig in their heels. You pick the foods, they decide what they will eat.
7. Family Style. Family Style. Family Style. If you only take one thing from this post, take this. I started doing this when Moe was a toddler. It literally changed our lives. Serve everything family style, and let everyone serve themselves. Keep the serving spoons small enough for toddlers. Toddlers adore the control of serving themselves. Tell them to serve themselves a small amount at a time, and they can have as many servings as they want if they like it. (This prevents waste). But you have to really let them choose what they will eat from the table. You cannot ask them to eat three bites of chicken or two more bites of broccoli. They really get to serve themselves without our commentary or requests.
8. Try to have family meals. This can be hard for families because toddlers like to eat at 5pm, and you or dad or both don’t get home until 7pm. Did you know family meals increase vocabulary in young children more than reading to them? They also improve nutrition, self-confidence and school performance among other things. So have family breakfast, or have weekend meals together. Eat a snack or dinner with your toddler, and have salad with your husband when he gets home. Think creatively because toddlers learn to eat by watching other family members eat. It is important enough to find a way that works for your family.
9. Expect appropriate behavior. We have dinnertime rules at our house that I will share in an upcoming post. But the table is a place where I have clear expectations for my children that increase as they age. Children like clear expectations, and like to feel successful at meeting them.
10. Keep mealtimes pleasant. Sharing food together is one of life’s simplest pleasures. Teaching children how to enjoy eating together is paramount. Mealtimes with fighting, food battles, and stress undermine eating and nutrition and override a child’s ability to self-regulate their food intake. Enjoy your children. Try playing simple games at dinnertime to engage your child such as: “raise your hand if you did art today” (hands shoot up), “raise your hand if you were silly today” (hands shoot up), “raise your hand if you are tired” (no hands), raise your hand if you helped clean up the playroom (no hands – kidding)!