As much as I’d love to consider myself as a toddler-feeding expert, truth be told I look to colleagues and friends for advice FIRST, then go with whatever works at the moment in my home. A fellow registered dietitian who I often look to for tips and tricks when it comes to feeding my dynamic duo is Maryann Jacobsen. Lucky for us Maryann is here today to share her go-to strategies for surviving THE meal with your toddler. THE meal being… drumroll please… dinnertime. Mom’s favorite. And toddler’s least favorite. Or so that’s how it goes in my house…. Take it away Maryann! Oh and be sure to check out her new book below [it’s another go-to mealtime guide in this house!].
Eating together as a family is not always as enjoyable as parents want it to be. On the one hand, you know it’s good to get this family-meal habit going. On the other hand, it can feel like a slog. Toddlers may not want to sit or they may suddenly decide throwing food is fun. There is also picky eating that makes it seem virtually impossible to serve one meal.
Despite the challenges, there is a way to enjoy family meals with young children. Here are 6 strategies that can help you turn things around.
1. Manage your expectations: It happens one day. Your “eat-everything” baby turned toddler begins to pick at food and even refuses dinner from time to time. They’d rather play than eat and getting them to the table seems like a monumental task.
There are some important reasons for this. Around age two, children enter a slower rate of growth, so appetite wanes. Food neophobia, fear of new food, also peaks, so they become skeptical of new or even previous liked foods. Understanding that this is normal can help you adjust your expectations. Your main goal at this stage is make family dinner as consistent and pleasant as possible. It will pay off later!
2. Eat at the right time: One of the reasons toddlers don’t eat well at dinner is because it is typically scheduled when they are tired. And let’s face it, a tired child just doesn’t eat well.
So be flexible on when you schedule your family dinners. If you child seems cranky at dinner, try moving dinner up by a half an hour until you feel you’ve reached the right time. And be sure to limit eating at least two hours before dinner so your child can build up an appetite.
3. Serve food family style: Young children have a need for food to be just right, which means they often don’t like different foods touching or prefer sauces on the side for dipping. Serving dinner family style in bowls on the table for self service can be a life saver. Help your child serve food and over time watch him master this task and enjoy meals more.
4. Provide repeated exposure (paired with a safe food): It natural for parents to gravitate towards meals they know their child will eat but doing so makes picky eating worse. Research shows it can take up to 15 exposures for a child to accept a food. As a mom of two young kids, I believe this number is often much higher. One way to deal with this is to keep to a regular rotation of dinner meals. Intertwine meals children like with meals they don’t accept yet. On nights it’s a meal they don’t like, provide a side dish they do accept, even if it’s just crusty bread and fruit.
This helps for a variety of reasons. If a child rejects dinner, you know they are not hungry instead of just disliking the meal. It also gives them time to accept more items and still get enough to eat. It also helps you (the parent) relax.
5. Incorporate the “don’t have to eat” rule: Toddlerhood is the time the food battles can start. It goes something like this:
Parent: “It’s time for dinner!”
Child: “I don’t want to eat!”
Parent: “You have to eat something”
The simple answer is letting children know they don’t have to eat. Explain to them that dinner is not just about food but time together as a family. This goes hand in hand with Satter’s Division of Responsibility, which says it’s the parents job to decide the what, when and where of feeding and it’s the child’s job to decide the whether and how much of eating. This feeding strategy keeps food battles far away from your table.
6. Be in awe: When kids become mobile it can be hard to get their undivided attention. When they sit for meals, it’s a great time to connect. Although this stage is trying in obvious ways, we all know it is incredibly precious. They will not stay this little for long.
There’s something endearing about a toddler’s ability to stop eating dessert because they are full and their preference for the excitement of life over a plate of food. Be sure to soak it all in.
Taking time to think through your “dinner strategy” can literally transform your family dinners from a chore to an enjoyable part of your day. You will have taken care of all the potential challenges that can come up, making it easy to focus on what really matters.Dread dinnertime with your toddler? Here are 6 tips for survival during mealtime! Click To Tweet
Maryann Jacobsen is a registered dietitian and creator of the popular blog Raise Healthy Eaters. She details how to develop a dinner strategy in her new book What to Cook for Dinner with Kids: How to Simplify, Strategize and Stop Agonizing Over Family Dinners.