6 Tips for Mastering Mealtimes with Your Toddler

6 Tips for Mastering Mealtimes with Your Toddler

If you're struggling with a picky eater or a toddler who isn't eating what you give them, you're far from alone. Some kids always struggle at mealtimes, while for others, it's just a phase. Here is my experience with my 17-month-old so far:

From the very moment my son was born, he was a champion eater. I felt like all I did was breastfeed; he was insatiable. Then at around 4 months, we decided with the advice of our pediatrician to start him on rice cereal.

He ate literally everything we offered. He downed those little baby food containers, one after the other. Peas, applesauce, carrots, prunes, sweet potatoes, you name it, he would eat it. By 10 months, he was eating anything and everything that we did, which was a huge blessing, but also a little overwhelming to try to keep him fed.

Then we moved to Arizona. It was hot, and we weren't able to do much. His appetite went from astounding to just above average. And it really was a relief to know he would always eat well. Until, one day, he stopped. He had been using a fork to spear little pieces of food that I cut up for him, as well as letting me spoon-feed him. But instead of eating, he would just whine and cry, even though I knew he was hungry and that he liked the food in front of him. So what was the problem?

Up until recently, every time we sat down to eat, it was like my son was on a hunger strike, with no solutions in sight. I had no idea what to do, and was developing some serious anxiety and mommy guilt about not being able to feed my son properly. So I waited. I was patient. And it was definitely a struggle.

Each child is different, and while some eat well, others don't. Both situations can be stressful. But if your toddler isn't eating as well as you would like, here are some suggestions I've found helpful:

1. Eliminate Distractions

If a bib is just too much of a distraction, eliminate it! They can eat naked for all we care, as long as they get some nourishment. Keep music and the TV off with their seat facing towards the table.

It really helps to have both parents sit down and eat with the child, too. This let’s them know that mealtimes are a time for togetherness and puts the focus on food. Also, it's a good idea to invest in a seat with buckles, like the Boon Flair, so you can secure your child during mealtimes. This will reduce their risk of choking, and emphasize that you sit down for the duration of the meal. 

If you're religious, a great way to implement a healthy mealtime routine is a prayer of thanks for the food before you eat, signaling the beginning of mealtime.

2. Make It Fun

Young children respond well to rhyming and songs, so it's not a bad idea to try making your own mealtime versions of their favorite songs. You can even have a special "lunchtime" song to help them know it's time to eat and get them excited. 

Colored plates and cups can also allow your child a chance for self-expression during mealtimes, and helps them feel a part of the process. As you try new things, smile and show your child that this is a fun, enjoyable time together--not some drudgery that makes mommy upset.

As for actually eating, there's always the classic "airplane" or "train" tactic, making them want to open their mouth to receive the magical spoon of food. It works for some, and not at all on others. Find what works for your child.

3. Promote Healthy Eating

Variety is the spice of life, and even though your kid might be picky and only eat fish sticks, constantly exposing them to new foods will widen their preferences and expand their palate. 

Freshly cooked vegetables, fresh fruits, lean proteins and whole grains are the name of the game. Dairy is great too, but don't overdo it or you'll have one constipated tot on your hands (my son would eat cheese and milk every day if he could). How you decide to prepare these main food groups can vary, but try to create food with textures that aren't invasive or difficult to swallow. Trust your mom instincts, and keep in mind how many teeth your child has to chew with.

4. Give Them More Control

I know what you’re thinking—she must be crazy!—but seriously. This is the reason why my kid went on a hunger strike at 16 months. It just took me a while to realize that he wanted more control. Letting your child use small but thick utensils is a great way to help them feel included in the process. NumNum Dips are a great first utensil! The main thing I found helpful in this vein was teaching my son to take small bites of big pieces of food rather than cutting it all up for him. He'd get offended and whine loudly each time I did so, until one day I tried putting two halves of a banana on his tray. It's been messier, but he's eaten fine ever since I made this small change. 

5. Change Tactics

Sometimes you (or your child) just need a break from the routine. Try new foods with different textures, or tastes. They can have the same textures with different tastes, too. Whatever works. You can scour the internet for ideas!

Or, you can break up your routine by inviting a friend over (this usually doesn’t help me) or going out to lunch with one of their friends (this helps me a ton!). Even doing an indoor (or outdoor) picnic can get them excited and wanting to eat.

Try doing a fun physical activity before lunch that tires them out and works up an appetite. Usually, they'll eat if they have enough motivation.

6. Celebrate the Small Victories

When all is said and done, a healthy child just won’t starve themselves, so keep trying. If they get a few mouthfuls each meal or one good meal a day, they’ll be okay. They just might be going through a phase or have too many distractions or are just bored of the same thing every day. 

When in doubt, consult the pediatrician. They'll be able to tell what's normal or when something is really wrong, and he or she will likely have some helpful suggestions. In the end, give yourself some credit, and know that it's going to be okay. You've got this!

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