This morning, my 13-month-old daughter and I sat down to breakfast, and she properly scooped her yogurt with a spoon, and 90 percent of said yogurt made it into her mouth. Amazing, right? It felt like we had turned a major corner in our toddler eating journey. She didn’t end this particular meal with her face and hair covered in yogurt. Success!
But then by lunch, she was flinging her applesauce-filled spoon as hard as she could against the wall. And by dinner, she was pushing all her formerly favorite vegetables off the tray and onto the floor (our dog eats well most evenings). OK, maybe we hadn’t turned a major corner as I had thought this morning.
When you sit down to a meal with a toddler, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s stressful, anxiety-inducing, fun, and exciting. Yes, all at once. It feels like every meal is a new adventure. A lot of parents face challenges at mealtime. Whether it’s a picky eater or a messy eater, we all are dealing with something.
If you’re encountering toddler eating frustrations, first know that you’re not alone. And second, understand that many of these behaviors are perfectly normal, though that certainly doesn’t make them any less frustrating. To set our minds at ease over these behaviors, and to get some tips for dealing with these situations, I spoke with Judy Delaware, an Occupational Therapist and Feeding Specialist who co-runs Feeding Littles. Feeding Littles offers online infant and toddler feeding courses, plus their Instagram account is full of tons of insightful info.
I asked Judy about some of the most common toddler feeding frustrations to get her expert advice. If you’re dealing with one (or many) of these things, you’re in good company. Here’s what to do about it.
My toddler doesn’t want to taste new foods and pushes them away before even trying them
The practical part of a parent’s brain asks, why do you assume you dislike this food before you’ve even tried it? And for a young toddler, the answer might not seem clear. Judy explained that it’s all about continued exposure, experimentation, and exploration. Continue to bring these items and flavors to the table, even if they are mostly ignored.
Modeling is also an important part of children learning to try new things, so by the parent eating it and modeling the behavior, children take notice. Bring their high chair close to the table and dine with them. Continue to expose them to new foods and flavors, even if they are hesitant to take a bite.
And it’s also fine to bring a piece of food to their mouth so they can actually taste it before dismissing it, though this isn’t a behavior that should become the norm for all of their eating. They should learn to feed themselves. If this helps to get that first taste in, go for it.
My toddler is picky and will only eat a handful of things
This is certainly not an uncommon situation. While my daughter is fairly open to trying new things, she would happily live off of cheese and blueberries. Judy shared that an important thing to remember is to “provide [new foods], and your child [can decide] on whether or not they are going to eat it.” Keep the pressure low and don’t make mealtime a battle.
If your child isn’t willing to move outside of their few favorite foods, think about how you can make the meal more toddler-friendly. Consider deconstructing the dish. So, instead of providing a vegetable and chicken filled pasta dish, provide a dish of pasta with a side of vegetables and chicken. Make it more approachable. If that doesn’t work, make it fun. Try a special cup or dish, or serve a meal out of a muffin tin to keep things interesting and new.
My toddler throws food and/or utensils
When your toddler throws food and utensils, it’s annoying, I get it (all too well). The natural reaction might be to laugh (OK, sometimes it’s funny!) or to raise your voice. While two extreme reactions, Judy explained that you should actually do neither. Your reaction will reinforce the behavior, making it into a routine.
Your toddler sees you laughing as they throw food to the dog and they want to keep you laughing, so the throwing continues. Or perhaps you responded by raising your voice and that is also interesting to your child, making them continue the behavior. Instead, try to ignore the behavior and redirect or reshape the behavior. Judy recommended putting a sticker on their tray to show where the spoon goes, or put a cup or bowl to place food they no longer want.
My toddler loves a food at one meal and won’t touch it during the next
Just like grown-ups, toddlers also crave variety. As toddlers start learning about color and texture, they might be excited to eat a pint of raspberries at one meal, then none at the next. And a desire to eat a variety of foods and to eat the rainbow are behaviors we should help to foster in our children. So while it may be frustrating that they love an item at lunch and seem to suddenly hate it by dinner, don’t buy too much into it.
Provide variety so they don’t get stuck in a food rut, only liking one type of food or even one brand of an item. Judy shared that toddlers may even start to notice specific brands, and if you continue to only serve one brand, they may become dependent on it, eventually refusing other brands. Make sure to serve items out of their original containers to avoid this issue.
My toddler eats a lot at one meal, then basically nothing at the next
When we’re dealing with babies, we are constantly monitoring how many ounces of milk they are getting at each feeding every day. And as our babies grow into toddlers, this shifts. Judy explained that instead of worrying how much a toddler eats at each meal or even in each day, instead think of how much they are eating over the course of a week.
Toddlers might push back and decide to skip a meal or only eat a few bites. Think back to “we provide, the child decides.” Serve your toddler their meal and let them decide how to move forward. By giving into their specific requests or continuing to serve them new items until they seem interested, you’ll be creating a picky child. If they haven’t eaten much at a meal, that meal will end and you can try again at the next meal. You may have to deal with some hanger between meals, but provide a snack, and hopefully, by the next meal, they will be more open to trying what you serve.
My toddler is messy and is covered in food by the end of a meal
Baby and toddler-feeding can be a messy business, but know that this won’t last forever. Again, you want to model behavior to teach your child the way to properly eat. Judy explained that by around 12-15 months, your child should know where their mouth is and should be making progress at getting most food in the right place. Help to guide the food into their mouth with a pre-loaded fork or spoon. If they are still a total mess, give them a few bites at a time, allowing them to request more when they are ready. It’s best to underwhelm them with the amount of food and slowly add more, as opposed to giving them a bowl full of yogurt that ends up all over them.