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4 Ways to Make Feeding Toddlers Easier

Is there anything more challenging than feeding a toddler? Okay, sure, there are a ton of super challenging things out there. But new mamas know feeding toddlers isn’t usually a picture of peace! From the new-found pickiness, to the food throwing, to the mess, to the refusal to eat, there are a lot of difficulties we deal with as parents. Since we’re in the thick of it at our house, and we’ve got plenty more toddler time ahead of us since little man is only 15 months, I wanted to share some of the things that are working in our house (currently anyway) to keep a bit of calm in the midst of the storm. I hope it’s helpful for other mamas out there!

1 – Avoid All-Day Grazing

Yes, kids eat frequently. Their tiny tummies need to eat more often than ours do. But there’s a difference between planned meal/snack times, and allowing kids to eat or drink all day long. When they’re grazing – nibbling on puffs/goldfish, carrying around a sippy cup of milk or juice that they constantly sip from, etc – it doesn’t allow them to develop a good sense of hunger before the next meal. If they arrive at a meal or snack and they’re not really hungry, that’s when we’re more likely to see food throwing, pickiness, refusing food, and other frustrating behaviors. Most toddlers/kids should be able to go at least 2 hours between meals/snacks (it can vary though, of course). Try to limit offering food and non-water drinks to meal or snack times only, so they get a chance to actually get hungry for the food.

2 – Provide Some (Flexible) Structure!

Kids thrive on routine and structure. If they know what’s coming next, or what they can expect, there tend to be fewer meltdowns and battles. So developing routines around mealtimes that work for your family can be really helpful.

While we want to be trying to feed our kiddos in response to their hunger cues, having a flexible outline of when food is offered helps to give some structure to their day, and ours. The hope is that if they’re not grazing all day, they’ll be hungry for those flexible meal and snack times we set.

As an example of this, here is the rough routine of my son’s meals/snacks:

7-ish: Wake up, go downstairs, have breakfast
9:30-ish: snack
11:30-ish: lunch
12: Nap
3-ish: snack
5-ish: small snack since he can’t quite make it all the way to dinner
6:15-ish: dinner, with some milk right before bed at 7 if he wants it.

That’s what’s working for us right now. The afternoon/evening can be tricky, since there is a long stretch between his snack and dinner (and this kid can EAT!), and I’m usually in the middle of trying to make dinner then, so having a little cutie-pie attached to my leg makes actually making said dinner a bit tough. But eating together as a family once my husband is home is important to me/us as well, so it’s a work in progress, but it’s working for now. Notice that I try to leave at least 2 hours between feedings, so that he’s hungry. (We’ve also introduced some sign language with him, so he signs “eat” when he’s hungry, which is super helpful!)

3 – Set Limits as Kindly as Possible (and Follow Through)

Man this is a tough one. I don’t want to get into any type of discipline discussion, and that’s not my intention here. Inevitably though, toddlers will do something behaviorally at meals that their parent deems unacceptable or not allowed. We’re really very lucky with how well-behaved our son tends to be overall, but our biggest challenge lately is food throwing! I’ve noticed that it often happens when he’s not really hungry anymore and is done eating. He also drops food off his tray that he doesn’t really like or want to eat. I can’t pretend to have this one all figured out, we’re still finding our way through it. BUT I will say that there are a couple things that have helped, to varying degrees.

  1. I try to anticipate it and warn him that if he throws his food, the meal/snack will be over. The hardest part of this is the follow-through, but of course, that’s the most important part! It’s easier if he’s eaten a decent amount of his meal and is probably just done eating. But it’s harder if he starts the throwing early in the meal and I’m almost certain that he’s still hungry (and maybe he’s just not the biggest fan of whatever the food is). In that case, I’ll still take it away, but I won’t clean him up just yet. If he tells me he’s still hungry, I’ll give him another chance to eat without throwing it. If he throws again, then it tells me he really is done. Sometimes I’ll revise my warning to one where if he throws it, I’ll have to feed him. He really likes to do it himself, but if he’s throwing it, mama gets to take control of the plate and spoon. This has been the most helpful tactic so far for us.
  2. A “No Thank You Zone” on his tray, for the food he doesn’t want. This has about a 50% success rate. We try to redirect him when he wants to throw his food to say “It’s okay that you don’t want it, but it’s not okay to throw it on the floor. Put it here if you don’t want it.” His high chair tray has little sections on it, so we just use one of those sections as the “zone.” Another possibility is a No Thank You Bowl. I know a few other people that this trick worked great for, but it’s only had a so-so result for us. I love the idea though!
  3. Give him things I know he likes in addition to anything new. This way I know that he likes at least one thing on the plate!
  4. Going back to my earlier point… I try to ensure he’s hungry at mealtimes. When he’s hungry, he’s much less likely to throw his food around!

4 – Don’t Stress About What They Eat (or How Healthy It Is)

You may find that to be an odd suggestion, coming from a Nutrition Coach, but really: don’t sweat it. The kid will be fine! As I’ve written about a little bit before (here and here), kids are great at listening to their bodies and meeting their needs. For the most part, they eat when hungry and stop when they’re done, unless we well-meaning adults start to interfere.

We don’t want to force them to eat if they’re not hungry (“You hardly ate anything! Here, have another bite of this.”), or eat more after they’re full just because a “healthy” food was left untouched. (“Just one more bite of brussels sprouts. They’re good for you. Just one more bite.”) As great for you as veggies are, we still do a disservice to our kids by trying to override their fullness cues. (Plus it just tends to get us into unnecessary food battles.)

I know it’s hard when you feel like your kid isn’t eating enough, or isn’t eating their veggies, but they’re not going to starve themselves. If they’re done, trust that they really are done. There is always another meal or snack around the corner (and another chance to see if they’ll try those brussels sprouts)! This is part of the reason that when my son throws food even when he hasn’t eaten much, I just go with it (or at least, I try to!) If that’s his way of telling me he doesn’t want any more, than I try to respect that, even though I’m not a fan of his method!

Keep the Long-Game in Mind

Just because a kiddo doesn’t like a particular food today, doesn’t mean it’ll always be that way. It takes somewhere in the vicinity of 10 experiences with a food for a kid to get a taste for it. If they don’t like something the first time around, try again another time. They may come to like it! But no pressure. Try to maintain an aura of “food neutrality.” There are no “good” or “bad” foods, so don’t over-emphasize the healthier choices or be afraid of the sugary stuff. If we stay neutral, it all evens out in the wash.

By the way, healthy food shouldn’t be something we bribe them to eat either. I know you want kiddo to eat his broccoli, but don’t get him to do it by promising to give him an ice cream if he eats it! Just keep offering it, and encouraging them to at least try it, but don’t force it. I promise, you’ll save yourself a lot of headache!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a book I found incredibly helpful to me when I was just starting to navigate the area of feeding a kid solid food. Fearless Feeding is the BEST book I’ve found on this topic. Many of the above ideas are ones that are also discussed more in-depth in that book. It’s not just for babies either – there are chapters for older kids and teens as well. Check it out!! Update: I wrote an actual book review of this book here!)

If you or someone else you know is having difficulty navigating the stormy waters that is feeding toddlers, share this post! Hopefully it helps someone out there 🙂