July 12, 2021 — By Wendy Sachs

Ever wonder why toddlers are difficult at meal times? Well, there are few universal reasons. First off, let’s remember that developmentally toddlers are working to figure out their own independence. This means making their own choices when it comes to everything from the color of the shirt they wear to the foods they put into their little mouths. They have figured out that you can’t MAKE them eat!! So they test us over and over. It can be frustrating.

Not eating? Is that ok?

Also at this stage, drastic changes in appetites are common. They may want to eat every hour one day and the next eat nothing. That is ok. They are growing more slowly than that first year of life.  They also are learning and developing the understanding of their hunger. A common mistake we make at this stage is to insist a toddler eats. We worry they are not eating and then offer “kid” foods that aren’t healthy just to get them to eat. Actually, it won’t hurt your toddler to skip a meal or even eat very little for a day. Always keep them hydrated and let them figure out how to listen to their bodies about hunger. When they are hungry, be ready with healthy options.

Manage choices.

Here is where we all need to remember that while these little humans are excited to make choices, and we want to give them options, we still control what foods are offered. It is so easy to rely on heavily processed foods with little nutrition or to keep feeding them pouches or puffs from the infant stage. To minimize picky eating later, this is our time to offer up healthy, colorful, nutritious foods.

How does this work?

One strategy that can work is to make sure the pantry and fridge are stocked only with foods you approve as healthy. Having something in sight that a toddler can only have sometimes is a recipe for frustration. Instead move foods like yogurt, fruits, veggies, and whole grains to the bottom shelves and then let a toddler pick only from your curated list of yummy and HEALTHY options.

Fats and proteins.

Toddlers need fats. Some great sources for healthy fats include avocado, olive oils, full fat dairy foods, nut and seed butters. The fat they eat at this age is important for brain development so you won’t want to limit it. It’s also important to note that fats, like proteins, produce the feeling of being satiated. Proteins such as hummus, cottage cheese, yogurt, beans as well as meat, poultry and fish are also great protein with fats foods that are often favorites of toddlers.

Deconstruct to reconstruct.

Deconstructing foods can make things easier for toddlers (and preschoolers) to approach. For example, if the family meal is spaghetti and meatballs, try giving pasta on the side, meatballs in the dish and sauce as a dipper for the meatballs. Or if sandwiches are for lunch, roll the turkey in a tube, cut cheese into cubes and offer the tomatoes and hummus on the side. Some families have success using bento boxes, or even an ice cube tray so foods don’t touch each other.

Feeding a toddler may not always easy. Working through the transition to mealtime, creating a mealtime ritual, understanding they are learning to eat when hungry and giving healthy choices may be the trick with toddlers. Instead of one more fight that doesn’t seem worth it, setting up healthy choices with firm boundaries can help us build good habits with fewer power struggles. Just remember that this stage will pass and know you are not alone.