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What To Feed Your Toddler (And HOW To Do It!)

It's becoming a frequent discussion now that I have a 1.5 year old: what do you feed your toddler? Toddlers come in all shapes and sizes, with different abilities and preferences. On top of that, those abilities and preferences can change weekly.

Or hourly.

That is the joy of raising a tiny human!!

My daughter was exclusively breastfed until 6 months, with no solids introduced during this time, per her pediatrician's recommendation. I knew I wanted to do Baby Led Weaning, which her pediatrician had actually never heard of and wanted me to do purees instead. But I chose to follow my own plan and continue with Baby Led Weaning; I had done a ton of research and had seen other babies thrive on it. So at 6 months, in addition to breastfeeding, I started Ava on table food, and she took to it better than I could have hoped! After she got better at not gagging and had tried a variety of foods, we began offering her whatever we were eating for dinner. Fast-forward a year, and that is still what she gets - what we are eating, or leftovers from the fridge. We don't live in a restaurant where she gets to pick from a menu of options, and that is the philosophy we intend to keep as she gets older. I do let her pick between 2 things once in awhile, like which kind of cheese or what fruit she would prefer.

At each meal, Ava is presented with a plate of food, and she gets to decide what she eats from the plate and how much. I don't make a fuss over what she chooses to eat or how much. I might encourage her to try something on her plate if she hasn't touched it, but I try to stay hands-off during her mealtime. The relationship we have with food is a very important one that begins at a young age - I think we can all remember instances from our childhood when we had to eat something we didn't like or we had to eat everything on our plate.

As a parent, I am in control of when Ava eats and what she is served, and Ava is in control of what she chooses to eat off her plate and how much

Only occasionally will we pull a different option, and that is usually if I've made something new and she doesn't like it, or she is sick or teething and we just need her to eat something. And even then, its something basic like yogurt or a pb&j - I don't cook anything extra.

To me, a "successful" mealtime with Ava means she explored her food with her senses. I obviously want her to eat, but if she's not interested in that aspect of the meal, then she is welcome to touch or rearrange her food, dip her finger in it, lick it, use a spoon to move it around, whatever! (*Throwing food or wiping food on herself are not acceptable mealtime behaviors and she is redirected or the meal is over if she continues.*) Interaction with food through smelling and touching is still positive mealtime behavior. I would still say that Ava likes to eat pretty much everything, although now that she's older, we have no idea if she will actually eat it or not. For example, she loves broccoli, but sometimes she won't even touch it.  And I'm ok with that! Some days I don't feel like eating broccoli either.

It's tempting as adults to demand that our kids sit still, don't make a mess, and focus on chewing and swallowing their food.

But you will lose this battle if those are your expectations.

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, when I was a preschool teacher, I had a 4 year-old boy in my classroom whom I will refer to as "Brad". Brad was new to the classroom setting and was struggling at mealtime. He didn't want to eat a thing. Ever. He kept saying he didn't like the food, but he wouldn't even touch it, let alone taste it. This went on for a week or two, and my co-teacher and I were trying to brainstorm how to encourage him to eat. Brad was a half-day kiddo, so he went home shortly after lunch was over, but a kid who doesn't eat anything is not a good thing, and we wanted to help him. We noticed during classroom activities that he could not identify pictures or toy replicas of most fruits and vegetables. It kind of triggered a lightbulb moment, and we asked Brad what foods he ate at home. "Chips, cookies, pizza rolls, hot dogs, donuts..." and his list went on in a similar fashion. It was hard to keep my game face - this poor kid was fed pure junk at home. And he knew nothing different. I realized we needed to be more sensitive to his issues with food, so I decided to sit with him at mealtimes and try a new approach. I made our interactions quiet, as I did not want his peers bringing any negativity to the situation. I asked him to try the peach slice on his plate. After he declined, I asked him if he wanted to smell it. I had a plate of the same food in front of me, and I modeled smelling the peach. He kind of smiled and watched, and I continued. "Do you want to touch it with your finger? Poke it with your fork? Do you want to lick it?!" His smile got bigger. He had kind of a shy but silly personality - he was such a sweet boy - and I could see him becoming interested. He eventually touched the peach, just the tiniest bit, and he beamed! And so did I! I backed off, and that was his interaction with the peach for the day. I left the meal on a positive note; that was great progress to me! We continued in this manner at each mealtime, until I didn't have to model or sit next to him. A couple of his peers who were at the same table had stepped in: "Hey Brad, do you want to try it? It's yummy!" It was really sweet to see his peers cheering him on.

And then one day, it happened.

Brad tasted the peach, without any prompting, and he exclaimed, "I like it, Ms Katie! I like it!"

Everyone was so happy!!! It was a proud moment for sure!!

From that point forward, I encouraged Brad to interact with his food however he pleased, and he began to try more foods, until he was eating the majority of what was on his plate. There were still foods that he would say "I don't love it, Ms Katie", to which I would reply with a smile, "That's okay, Brad!" and leave it at that.

Moral of the story? Pick your battles. Make it fun. And if you can, eat with your child. Model eating the food you want them to eat; this has helped Ava and was a part of Baby Led Weaning. Mealtimes should be a relaxed, family activity whenever possible.

- - - - - - - - - - -

If Ava doesn't eat well at one meal, it's not a big deal because she gets a snack in a few hours anyway. She will eat when she's hungry enough. Sometimes as adults we don't have an appetite at mealtimes, either.

There are a few exceptions to our mealtime "rules" with Ava. We have discovered there are a few foods that she will always ignore the other options on her plate because they are her favorite - macaroni and cheese, french fries, and sometimes eggs. So we anticipate this and only give her a little of the other items we want her to eat since we know she won't touch them. She asks for more, and we give it to her. Its a battle that's not worth fighting, and we know to offer her something else at her next meal so she can get a balance of healthy options for the day.

So I encourage you to find out what makes your child tick, and use as many positive interactions as you can during mealtime! It's not always easy, and I still struggle with it sometimes, but it's not worth the stress to try and control it.

Here are some examples of what Ava is served and what she actually eats:

What she was served: Crescent roll pepperoni pizza, mixed veggies with lentils, mixed fruit
What she ate: the cheese and pepperoni from the pizza, a few bites of veggies, a bite of crescent roll, and one bite of fruit.

She didn't eat a whole lot, but she spent a lot of time at the table and enjoyed picking apart the crescent roll. That was a new food she had not tried before. Lots of positive food interactions!

What she was served: cheese ravioli, mixed veggies (I gave her a lot because she won't eat the green beans or carrots), mixed fruit (I hardly gave her any because she hasn't been eating it much lately)
What she ate: almost all the ravioli, all the peas and corn, no fruit

What she was served: Taco soup, mandarin oranges
What she ate: the beans and corn (asked for more and ate a few bites), all the oranges (asked for more and ate it all), then she asked for more so we gave her some cheese.

She's not always keen on eating meat, so we allow it to slide. She had a really good appetite at this meal!

What she was served: grilled cheese, pepperoni, mashed potatoes, mixed fruit
What she ate: the cheese from the sandwich, licked the pepperoni, moved her spoon around in her potatoes, and ate one fruit.

This meal was not a big success in terms of her actually eating, but she still had a lot of positive interactions with her food.

What she was served: chicken sausage, peppers, pasta, cheese, oranges.
What she ate: all the cheese, all the oranges, most of the pasta, sucked on some peppers and spit them out, ignored the sausage.

She was given this same meal at lunch the next day; she only ate cheese.
We served it to her again for dinner - she ate ALL of it and asked for more!

(Just an example of how unpredictable meals can be. No need to worry about it! For Ava, I would not worry about a lack of an appetite unless it went on all day. One meal is not a big deal.)

What she was served: chocolate chip waffle, bananas, blueberries*
What she ate: most of the waffle, one banana, all of the blueberries*

*The blueberries were from the freezer so they were mushy once thawed. If they were fresh, I would have halved them since they are more plump and the big ones can be a choking hazard if left whole.

What she was served: grilled cheese, green beans, a fruit "squeezie" (I think most call them pouches)
What she ate: all of her grilled cheese, all of her fruit squeezie, and a few green beans

She took forever to eat at this meal. I wasn't sure she was even going to eat the grilled cheese because she was just picking the cheese out. But I just let her be and 20 minutes later she was taking bites out of her sandwich! I have to help her with the fruit squeezie or else she will squeeze the crap out of it and make a ginormous mess. She was so eager to eat it as soon as she saw it - they are a treat in our house!

What she was served: Macaroni and cheese with peas and carrots mixed in, tuna, pears
What she ate: ALL of her mac and cheese and had seconds, tried the tuna but spit it out, no pears.

This was one of those meals that I give in to what she wants. She devours mac and cheese, and this time because the veggies were mixed in, she ate those too! She eats mac and cheese by the handful! I probably should have given her a spoon but that would have meant a lot of it would have ended up in her lap. And I was starving and I just needed to sit and eat, too. 8 month prego said "next time"! I was happy she tried the tuna, and was not surprised at her reaction! 

What she was served: fish sticks, mixed vegetables, strawberry jello
What she ate: all her fish sticks and asked for more (she ate 4 whole ones!), all of the jello, picked at the veggies.

I think fish sticks might be the next thing we add to her "non-negotiable" list of not wanting to eat anything else on her plate! She loves them! The jello was new and I DEFINITELY spoon-fed it to her. I didn't need jello all over her/the table/the floor/the walls.

These are all examples from about a week's time, during which she was battling an ear infection, so her appetite (and mood) was a little unpredictable. But as you can see, I try to give her a variety of foods, but sometimes she does gets a lot of the same things (she got a lot of mixed veggies this week, and she almost always gets a banana at breakfast). Food for your toddler does not have to be hard!! Keep it simple! We do a lot of canned or frozen vegetables, and a mixture of fresh/canned/frozen fruits depending on what's in season.

I hear a lot of toddlers don't like meat, so you can substitute with beans, eggs (scrambled or hard boiled are great options), cheese, nut butters, lentils (freezer section, people!! Go explore your grocery store!!), and yogurt (watch the sugar content in some brands that market towards kids). Don't stress if a meal or two doesn't go well, just try again next time! 

If you and your child are already at the point where mealtime IS a battle, it may be time to establish some ground rules. It may be hard, but the reward of a child who eats will be worth it! Think of it like weaning from a pacifier, potty training, sleeping on their own in their crib/bed, or any other "growing up" skill you'd teach them.

Present them with food you have chosen at mealtime. Make sure you have at least ONE food they have had before on their plate so they have something familiar. This is probably not the best time to serve them something they've never had before.

Model eating and interacting with THE SAME FOOD you have served your child.

Resist the urge to make demands, yell, argue, or say things like "one more bite of ____ and then you can have _____". That is manipulation and you want to avoid that. Letting them have control over what they choose to eat is important.

Keep all your interactions positive! It's hard, but you can do it! (You can talk to them about their food: "I like to eat pears because they are so juicy!" or "I pretend my spoon is a digger and I dig my mashed potatoes!" or whatever you think will appeal to your child).

DO NOT CAVE  and offer them anything other than what they were served (at least during this "training" can be more flexible later on). You will undo your work to create new mealtime expectations!

Give them time to sit in front of their food, even when they blatantly refuse their food. They need to have time to change their minds. If sitting turns into them throwing a fit, show them how they can smell their food, touch it, poke it with a fork, and so on. Try to create those positive interactions!

DON'T show that you are upset if they choose to not eat anything (even if you are raging mad). Your child's healthy relationship with food begins with YOU.

The meal is over when either the child is finished, they are having improper mealtime behavior (throwing food, etc), or they choose to be done eating.

I promise, your child WILL NOT STARVE if they do not eat anything at that particular meal. If they ask for different food, simply tell them they can eat again at snack time and leave it at that. No negotiating, just move on to the next activity of the day. You can also keep their plate of uneaten food and offer that to them if they say they are hungry. I have heard of many households handling meals in this way, and it WORKS! Offer them a healthful snack later (NO TREATS) and enjoy a fresh start! Don't hold previous mealtimes over their heads.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, repeated exposure to the same food will eventually lead them to voluntarily trying the food on their own (remember my story about Brad??). But it takes many, many times for this to happen. That's why Ava always gets all the food groups on her plate, even if I'm doubtful she will eat it. She can look at it, touch it, smell it, whatever she wants. I just don't put much of it on her plate if I anticipate her ignoring it so the waste is minimal. 

Go easy on yourself. And go easy on your child. This stuff is hard!

Questions? Other ideas? Feel free to comment with what works in your house!

Thanks for reading!

I would just like to add that I fully support every parent raising their own children how they desire; that is within your right. There is NO ROOM for "mommy wars" on my blog! I am not a doctor, and if you feel your child has underlying issues with food, talk with your pediatrician. I am just a well-trained preschool teacher with an ECE degree and stay-at-home-mom who wishes to share ideas and inspire others to be the best parent they can be. Raising children can be quite a challenge and I think it's nice we can support each other here! That is all. :)


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