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Toddler eating: 10 tips for healthy eating relationships

toddler eating tips
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Toddler eating: 10 tips for healthy eating relationships

toddler eating tips
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toddler eating tips

This article offers parents ten top tips for toddler eating. All ToddlerCalm consultants know how strongly parents want to ensure that their toddler eats a varied and nutritious diet. However, parents also tell us how concerned they are to support their child to have lifelong healthy relationship with food. Sometimes the tactics we fall into using can be counter-productive.

These tips can help lower your stress levels around your toddler’s eating, and promote that long-term healthy relationship with food.

1 Trust your toddler

We need to trust our children to know when they are hungry and when they are not. It’s important we allow them to listen to their body’s signals. When we try to encourage a toddler to eat more, we teach them to override their satiety cues; the feeling of being full. We make our cajoling more important than their body’s comfort and needs.
Often a child has eaten plenty, when parents try to encourage ‘clearing their plate’. It is easy to forget how much smaller are toddler portion sizes than adult ones. As adults we tend to think about balanced meals; toddlers have balanced weeks instead. They may focus on one food or food type at a meal or in a day. This is not a problem; if you offer a variety of nutritious foods they usually eat a balanced diet if you consider the long view.

2 Keep talk neutral

It is really important not to praise a child for eating. This can create a long-term association between eating and earning love, which is an unhelpful association. It is also important not to punish children for not eating. Creating negative associations around eating tends to increase any struggles you have with your child’s eating habits. If you feel the need to comment at all then simply say what you see. ‘You’ve eaten all your peas’. However, ideally keep mealtime conversations away from food.

3 Always offer ‘safe’ foods

It is totally normal for toddlers to reduce the variety of food they eat between approximately 18 months and 5 years old. This is a biological mechanism which is designed to keep them safe. They become more suspicious, especially of green foods, which tend to be bitter. They often stick to familiar foods they have regularly eaten and recognise.

If you’re eating something your toddler hasn’t tried before, or often, ensure some of their safe foods are available too. This ensures that there is always something your child is happy to eat. When there is a safe food available, they may feel safe to choose to try the new food. When there are no safe foods, they’re more likely to be stressed and feel pressured; this creates resistance to trying the new food, and can create negative associations. We are not suggesting you stop serving foods they don’t eat. It can take around 15 encounters with a food before they add it to their safe category.


4 Involve your toddler in cooking

When children are engaged in the process of preparing a meal it can have several benefits. It can help them feel involved in the process and give them a sense of ownership and pride. They may feel excited to try something they have helped to make. It also helps them to build associations between raw ingredients, and the cooked meal they are a part of. This helps them build familiarity with, say, carrots, rather than only carrot soup. If they like carrot soup, and know that carrots are a part of the soup they may be more inclined to try other things carrot based foods, or to nibble raw carrots, or to eat cooked carrot with their meal.

Toddlers often enjoy a nibble of ingredients whilst you are prepping too, which can be great for getting them tasting different vegetables and noticing how their texture and taste varies when prepared in different ways, All of this builds familiarity too. So, even if they don’t eat any of it, simply handling the food helps it to become safer, and increases the likelihood of trying it on future occasions.

5 Don’t attach status to food

By only offering ice cream after spaghetti bolognese, and making getting ice cream conditional on eating a certain amount of bolognese you are inadvertently ranking food. You make the ice cream a higher status treat or reward food, and the bolognese a chore to be endured, rather than food to be enjoyed. If you have a pudding you can make it equal to the main, either by having it on the table at the same time, with the option to eat it first, or offering it regardless of the amount of other food eaten.

Requiring a certain amount to be eaten first also encourages a child to overeat in order to ensure they get to eat some ice cream. This is unhelpful for creating a long-term healthy relationship with food.

6 Rethink snacks

Rethink what you offer for snacks. Can you have a snacking station with fruit, veg sticks, things to dip in, like hummus, peanut butter, soft cheese or yoghurt dip, pieces of cheese, crackers, pieces of meat or egg slices if you can keep them cool and fresh? This gives children a variety of foods to choose from that they can return to throughout the day as they become hungry, and both encourages nutritious snacking, but also can mean parents don’t feel like they’re constantly preparing food! Smaller stomachs mean adults might think children are grazing, but little and often can be a more intuitive way to eat.

7 Don’t have ‘forbidden foods’

If you have foods in your house that you would prefer your toddler not to eat, then remove them from the house. They’re more likely to ask for them frequently if they know they’re there. If they’re there but restricted they become ‘forbidden fruit’, increasing rather than decreasing their desirability. Your child is more likely to make balanced choices if they have free choice from what’s available; it can make for calmer relationships between you too.

8 Encourage independence

This allows them to be in control of their body’s needs and respond to them appropriately. Create somewhere accessible for that day’s snacks, they can then eat when they feel hungry without asking. Place a water jug, bottle or dispenser on a low table for constant access. Allow toddlers to serve themselves from a serving dish at meal times; it gives them control and may increase the range of foods they try.

9 Eat with your child

If you are wanting your toddler to eat certain foods they need to see this modelled. It’s one benefit of eating meals together as a family. They see the foods you eat and gradually build familiarity with these, integrating them into their safe foods category, they can also see how others eat with cutlery and observe mealtime etiquette, and will begin to behave likewise.

10 Take their words with a pinch of salt

I am not saying disbelieve them when they say they don’t want something. However, you know when a child says they hate the food they ate two bowls of yesterday? Well, remember that their vocabulary is still developing and they may not be able to say “I usually really like that, however today I really don’t want it.” I know that I really enjoy certain foods some of the time, and at other times really don’t want to eat them. They are not lying to you, but they probably also don’t hate the food and never want to eat it again; they don’t like to eat it, right now.

To find out more about toddler eating visit the Toddler section of our Knowledge hub

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