When my first little dude started eating solid food, he could best be described as gleeful. He ate everything. He would shovel handfuls of ground meat cooked with salsa into his mouth. Broccoli disappeared in a flurry. Curry lentils were a favorite. He always ate with gusto and was willing to try anything I put in front of him.
Then he hit 18 months and basically stopped eating all together. We ruled out allergies and sensory issues and determined that what we had on our hands was actually quite ordinary – a picky toddler. But as my son’s list of acceptable foods dwindled to a mere handful, I found my appetite growing for articles with titles like “5 methods to encourage toddlers to try new foods” and “here’s how to end picky eating forever!” I read them all.
And I have great news! I have finally figured out how to properly feed a toddler – and I’m going to share what I’ve learned with all of you!
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that meals should never be stressful for anyone involved. If you stick to a structured eating routine, with scheduled healthy snacks, you can ensure that your child will always feel hungry at mealtimes. Be sure to feed your child whenever they indicate they are hungry, because snacks minimize blood-sugar swings and lessen undesirable behavior. Allowing young children to graze throughout the day is actually more compatible with their busy explorer lifestyles. Try placing a plate of snacks on an easy-to-reach table or giving your child a shelf in the pantry, allowing them to choose to eat whenever they are hungry. Remember, if your child doesn’t eat what you offer during a meal, they should not be allowed to have any snacks.
It’s best to serve meals family style, with the whole family sitting at the same table. Family meals are warm, bonding experiences that are extremely important to your child’s development. Your child doesn’t have to eat, but they are expected to remain quietly at the table with the family during meals. Keep in mind that toddlers can’t be expected to sit still for anything, even meals. Let your child leave the table whenever he indicates he is finished eating, even if he hasn’t eaten anything all, so that mealtime can be pleasant for the rest of the family.
Never ask your child to taste anything or insist on a certain number of bites. Simply place new foods in front of your toddler and don’t make a big deal about it. But offer a lot of praise for tasting new foods and encourage them to try new flavors. A good rule of thumb is the “two bite rule,” where you require your child to take at least two bites of a new food before saying he doesn’t like it. Researchers believe it can take up to 20 exposures to an unfamiliar food to gain a child’s acceptance, so be persistent. Remember to respect your toddler’s rights to truly dislike a certain food. Smile when your toddler insists that the meal you prepared is “disgusting” so that they will trust you won’t make them eat it again. This will help keep your toddler open minded.
It’s very important to make sure mealtimes are fun and interesting. Parents should tell stories and sing songs. Use cookie cutters to cut food into funny shapes. Place finger foods on toys, such as matchbox cars or trucks, and pave a road to your child’s mouth. Keep in mind that if you sing, dance, or play to encourage your child to eat, he will learn that you are willing to go to any length and will become more resistant to your efforts. Be sure to avoid toys at the table. Send your child the signal that mealtime is for eating, not for playing. Meals should always be relaxed and quiet.
What ever you do, don’t become a short order cook and prepare special meals for a picky eater. This will only create stress, resentment, and extra work for you. Cook only once and prepare whatever the adults want to eat. There are no other options for diner. But it’s a good idea to track your child’s food sensitivities and always keep them in mind when preparing meals. Make sure there is always something on the table you know your toddler will eat. Serve your toddler’s favorite foods several times a week and serve “yuck” foods rarely. If your child insists on eating cereal three meals a day, you should go with it because it’s better than not eating at all.
If you want your child to be an adventurous eater, avoid overwhelming your little one with a plate full of new foods. It’s best to introduce new foods one at a time. Keep in mind that it’s very important to embed more choices into your toddler’s eating habits, because your toddler will be more willing to try new foods when they are given the power to choose. Be sure to offer a wide variety of options. Try putting different choices in a muffin tin or ice cube tray to offer your toddler a tasting buffet. Or, to save time, buy a variety of locally grown organic produce, prepare each item three different ways, then throw them directly on the floor.
Remember, quality nutrition is extremely important for toddlers because it affects their physical and mental development. Deficiencies of nutrients can impair both brain and body functioning, so it’s crucial that your child is consuming the essential nutrients he needs to grow. Additionally, the food habits your child develops today will have an impact on his health through the rest of his life. If your child is rejecting an entire food group for more than two weeks, you should talk to a doctor or registered dietitian. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that a parent’s only job is to offer healthy meals – it’s up to the children to decide whether or how much to eat. There’s no need to monitor what your child eats. Healthy children know how much to eat to stay healthy and will eat when they are hungry. Try not to worry about it too much and make sure you keep the emotion out of mealtime. Remember, meals should never be stressful.
If all of this makes your head want to explode, here’s my actual advice: just do the best you can. Try the suggestions that seem most likely to work for your family and least likely to make you lose your mind. Then pour yourself a big glass of wine, because after all that nonsense you deserve it!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, unfortunately it’s time for dinner. Let’s just hope I can remember to follow my own advice – because my second little dude just turned 18 months…