Toddlers rule at mealtime when no rules exist

Setting a good example and routine are key to happy mealtimes.

Toddler in front of fruits at a picnic.

Toddlers do not have control over much in their lives, but they do control what goes into, and comes out of, their mouths at mealtime. For this reason, many parents find mealtimes challenging when trying to feed a toddler. Out of frustration, parents may serve only the foods the child likes in order to get the child to eat. When you think about it, it does make sense that many toddlers are picky eaters because they are being introduced to new foods that have unfamiliar tastes, textures and smells compared to the breastmilk or formula given during the first year of life. Parents can teach healthy eating habits during mealtime by offering a variety of foods to eat, adjusting their mealtime expectations and allowing the toddler some freedom to decide how much to eat. 

Toddlers start eating solid food when their growth starts to slow, but nutrition remains very important. Making mealtime a family affair sets a good example for toddlers as parents and siblings model healthy eating. Kids are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables when they eat meals with their family. Resist the urge to only feed them their favorite food at every meal or rewarding them with dessert. Instead, prepare and serve healthy meals and let them choose what they want to eat. Keep offering unfamiliar foods. The more young children are offered foods, the more likely they will taste it and eventually learn to like it. 

Consider these tips to get your toddler to eat more than just their favorite food at mealtimes. 

Serving size for toddlers. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that two year olds get 1,000 calories a day from a variety of sources from each food group. Serving a tablespoon or two of an unfamiliar food can encourage your toddler to try a bite rather than having an overwhelming mound of squash or other unknown food on his or her plate. 

Positive peers. When toddlers see someone their size eating fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to try them too. Look for opportunities for your toddler to eat with friends. Children also learn by watching you, so set a good example by eating the same food you’re serving your toddler.

Feed themselves. Your toddler should try using a spoon or fork by 15-18 months. Toddlers should try to feed themselves, with assistance from mom or dad when needed. Letting children feed themselves helps them to learn the cues of hunger and fullness. 

Regular meal and snack times. Having regular meal and snack times helps establish a routine. If toddlers refuse a meal, having regular meal and snack times helps kids manage hunger because they learn when to expect food during the day. It is not advisable to allow kids to eat on demand, because they will not learn the cues of hunger or fullness. 

It is common for toddlers to be picky eaters. If your toddler is growing and has energy, he or she is probably eating enough to be healthy. If you have concerns, you should see your doctor or pediatrician. For more tips for handling picky eaters in your family the USDA has a tip sheet for picky eaters online.

Michigan State University Extension offers nutrition education for parents in counties throughout Michigan. To contact an expert in your area, visit the expert page, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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