Feeding toddlers brings about a whole new set of challenges. Some time after children turn one, they start rejecting the same foods they once gobbled down. What parents do during this time can either help or hurt the situation.
Here are some tips on how to help your child eat well while developing a healthy relationship with food:
1. Split the responsibility with your child: Based on more than 40 years of research and working with families, Ellen Satter, MS, RD recommends a division of responsibility when feeding children: parents decide the “when” and “what” of eating and children decide “how much” to eat. This means parents don’t pressure or restrict how much a child eats and children don’t decide what is on the menu at mealtime. Satter says most eating problems occur when either the parent or child crosses the division of responsibility.
Letting a child be in charge of how much they eat allows them to self-regulate food intake. There will be weeks when they eat everything on their plate and weeks when they pick at their meals. This is normal for most toddlers. If you think something is wrong with the health of your child, always consult a pediatrician.
2. Provide regular balanced meals and snacks: While feeding little babies on demand is fine, feeding toddlers with a predictable routine makes more sense. In fact, children who eat planned meals and snacks have more nutritious diets than those who consume fewer meals. Provide your child with 3 meals and 2-3 snacks – and they’ll have plenty of opportunities to eat. Avoid feeding your child while he or she is watching TV or riding in the car. Instead, pick a central place (like the kitchen table) to eat most meals.
3. Eat with your child: One of the reasons parents don’t repeatedly offer foods that their child has rejected is that they hate to waste it. But if you eat with your toddler you not only set an example, you’ll be eating the food instead of throwing it in the trash. If you work full-time, make an effort to eat as many meals as you can with your child even if it’s only dinner.
Not being pressured to eat while watching you eat a variety of foods will nudge your little one to be more adventurous with eating.
4. Include fun foods in moderation: According to a 1999 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, children with restricted access to palatable foods ate more of that food when it was available.
When deciding what to feed your child, include “fun food” items like cookies and chips 2-3 times per week as a part of balanced meals. For example, have cookies and milk for snack time on Monday and potato chips with a sandwich a few days later with lunch. This teaches your child how to eat such foods in moderation without becoming preoccupied with them.
5. Have regular family dinners: Children who participate in regular family dinners eat more nutritious diets, do better in school, have fewer behavioral problems and are less likely to be overweight and have disordered eating patterns. So take the time to plan balanced dinner meals with all family members present most days of the week. See our Quick Dinners posts for some simple recipe ideas.
6. Involve your little one in planning and preparing food: Toddlers love to help if given the chance. So while cooking dinner, pick a safe task that your child can do to help. Also, bring your children grocery shopping and involve them in picking out fruit and vegetables. Better yet, visit your local farmers market and enjoy the samples of fresh produce. Your children are more likely to eat when they participate in all the steps of food preparation.
Subscribe to Raise Healthy Eaters by Email to learn more about how to feed your toddler.
Fisher JO. Restricting access to palatable foods affects children’s behavioral response, food selection and intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;69(6): 1264-72.
Birch SR, Daniels MW, Gilman AH, Lichtenstein KT, Steinberger J, Stettler N, Van Horn L. Dietary recommendations for children and adolescents: A Guide for Practitioners. Pediatrics. 2006:117:544-59.
Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: Orchestrating and Enjoying the Family Meal by Ellen Satter, RD.