Tips on getting a toddler to eat

Oh the joys of feeding a toddler (speaking of which, that’s my toddler in the photo, enjoying chocolate ice cream in his first visit to Disneyland).

ToddlerEatingChocolateIceCreamActually, the joys in attempting to get your toddler to eat anything.

Not quite a baby. Not quite a child. It’s that in-between time that leads to confusion and frustration for you and your child on how to deal with daily life.

Let’s just get this out of the way first: do not believe that my child eats everything I make. In fact, he takes the BBQ-grilled pizza that my husband and I made from scratch for hours and chucks it against the wall.

It’s frustrating. It’s more than frustrating.

A toddler who refuses to eat (which is every toddler at some point) makes a parent worry about nutrition. It makes you wonder just how much protein is in those cute little yogurt-covered cookies.

Here are my tips on getting a toddler to eat:

  1. My favorite bit of advice on feeding children is Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility. She suggests that parents decide what food is served when. Children decide what they eat and how much. Her advice is contrary to what most people think about feeding children (that children should eat x number of bites of something and that parents should control what and how much children eat of each thing). Satter’s approach is unique, but it works for us. We may not follow every single thing she suggests, but for the most part Jack is given the same food as everyone else. But I’ll admit that sometimes I’ll break out a yogurt or a cheese stick to try to get something in him. I would suggest Satter’s approach especially if meals have become a power struggle and are filled with conflict.
  2. This goes along a bit with Satter’s advice, but I think it needs restating. Stop worrying SO much about what your toddler is eating. I’m a type A person and this is not easy for me. But I just have to trust in my heart that he will eat when he is hungry. I don’t provide him with only unhealthy food options, nor do I provide a full bag of chips and a soda with every meal. Therefore, I know that in each meal he’ll end up eating enough to give him a balanced diet.
  3. Consider yogurt. This may only be a Jack thing, but as a vegetarian family I try to offer Jack yogurt as a meal option every day. Some offer probiotics which help maintain a healthy tummy and almost all are high in protein. Make sure to read the ingredients to avoid high fructose corn syrup while making sure added sugars are low as well. If you avoid gelatin like me, be sure to check for that as well. Or, instead of stocking up on yogurt cups, you can buy a big tub of Greek yogurt for the whole family to eat with honey and granola for adults, with jam stirred in for the kiddos and as a substitute for sour cream.
  4. Find vitamins that work for you. Jack always hated that nasty smelling brown liquid vitamins we tried to give him every day as a baby. But especially for toddlers you can find gummy vitamins (depending on your child’s age, number of teeth and such) and powdered vitamins. My favorite are the Honest Co. vitamin packets. You can throw them in the diaper bag, in a lunch sack or keep them in the pantry. Usually I add them to Jack’s applesauce which he loves and which has a strong enough flavor that he doesn’t notice the added nutrition.
  5. If your child throws a complete tantrum at dinner (as mine does from time to time) consider taking the plate away and letting them go play while you finish eating. This works for us because we have a separate dining room that is right next to the living room and we have a baby gate in between. He usually ends up continuing his tantrum for some time. And then once he has calmed down, offer another chance to sit at the table and eat. This approach doesn’t work every time, but it’s worth trying if you are desperate.
  6. Limit snacks. Is your child happy to push his or her nutritious and balanced lunch away because some tasty bunny cookies are bound to be the post-nap snack? Sometimes toddlers really do need snacks or else they end up being so over-hungry by meal time that they just can’t even. But others might be playing you because they know they can skip out on meal time and get whatever snack they want just a bit later.
  7. Teach your children that it is perfectly OK to say no to some foods. Some children get so caught up about one thing on the plate that the entire meal is ruined. If your child says no or hands you something he or she does not want, just put it in a napkin and move on. For talking toddlers, you might ask if they want to try the new food on the plate. If he or she doesn’t like it, tell them to say “no thank you” and spit it out in a napkin if need be. Yes, it is maddening to spend time cooking food that your child may not even try. But taking the fight out of meal time is a great first step towards healthy eating habits for your children and strengthening family bonds.
  8. No more clean plate club. As Satter instructs, our bodies naturally know how much to eat. It is our experience in life that has moved us towards eating too much because we need to finish what we are provided. Decide before a meal whether dessert will be served, rather than making it dependent on eating everything on the plate. It also helps to only provide small bits of each thing being served and then getting more of something if your child so desires. This makes sure that your leftovers are safer (by not coming into contact with your child’s spoon or hand). And, while you eliminate clean plate club for the kids, consider doing so for everyone in the family. Always best to start out with a small portion and go back for seconds so you don’t overeat nor do you waste food.
  9. Accept that it is normal for children to eat varying amounts of food. One day your child eats everything in sight, reaching onto your plate for seconds. Other days a few small bites are enough to fill up your toddler. This is all normal. It may be difficult to know how much food to provide, but accepting this will lessen your stress.
  10. Get your toddler involved in the kitchen. Jack just turned 2 and he is nowhere near ready to help cook over the stove or cut up vegetables. But, he can still be involved in cooking. Showing children what foods they will be eating in raw form (a full tomato before making marinara sauce, a full zucchini before dicing and cooking) can help them learn and accept new foods. If you’ve ever watched the Disney movie Ratatouille you’ll remember when Remy the rat explains foods in the beginning of the movie. He talks about trying one food (a whole food, not a dish or processed item) such as a strawberry and exploring and talking about the flavors. Then trying, say, a cube of cheese. And then trying both together. This approach (I’ve even had Jack smell fresh herbs and try a lick of sugar crystals) helps children begin to understand the amazing, diverse flavors possible from food.

Sonya Quick

Full-time mom, freelance journalist and dancer. Loves cooking, listening to good music and drinking craft beer.

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