Keeping kids fed through the toddler years can be challenging.

  • We want them to eat enough food so that they don’t fall into a hunger-induced meltdown mid-morning, so that they don’t fizzle while playing in the park, and so that they sleep just once through the night.
  • They, on the other hand, simply want to stave off starvation.  Sure, they’ll eat the number of bites necessary to satisfy you, but only so they can get back to jumping on the couch and sticking nickels up their noses.  In fact, most toddlers only seem genuinely interested in eating when it’s ice cream that you’re offering.

Let’s face it: most toddlers are less interested in eating than their parents want them to be.  They want to end the meal before they’re full and you want them to be full before they end the meal.  Read The Dinner Dance: When is Enough Enough?

So what can you do?

1) Allow some eating on the run.

I know you don’t want your children to grow up to be uncouth heathens, and that means you’ll eventually have to teach them to eat at the table, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  For now, split the difference with your kids: eat one or two meals a day with your kids at the table and let them eat everything else on the go.

If this shocks you, remember that sometimes you have to do the unthinkable, and in this case it might just be letting your children graze through lunch, eat breakfast while they’re watching television, or snack while riding in the stroller.  Read The Road Less Traveled.

Try putting bite-sized bits in a tray near where your children play (or in a baggie they can carry around) and see how much they suck down. Sandwiches, fruit, veggies, crackers, cheese all work great.

2) Teach your kids to be honest.

Kids need to be able to end a meal for reasons other than not being hungry. Teach them to tell you the truth and they will.  Then, you will have more information to solve the situation, and your kids won’t learn to lie to themselves.

Here are some things kids should be able to say, in addition to, “I’m not hungry,” :

  • “I want to finish playing.”
  • “I want to get down.” (No further explanation needed.)
  • “This food looks gross.”

I know this sounds like it will encourage your kids to end the meal prematurely, but think of it this way: changing how your children express themselves won’t change what they want.  Your children are going to do whatever they’re going to do, regardless what they say.

3) Let your children end the meal when they want to.

You have no real choice but to let your children end the meal when they say they’re done.  Not only is this the respectful thing to do, but the two or three more bites you’ll get down your kids’ throats won’t actually yield enough nutrition (or stave off enough hunger) to warrant the use of this tactic.

More importantly, letting your kids end the meal when they want to end it is the only way to teach them to eat at mealtimes.  Keep reading to see how this works.

4) Talk to your children about the consequences of not eating enough.

The only way kids learn to eat at mealtimes is to teach them that when the meal is finished, so is the food. You don’t have to be a tyrant.  What follows is a compassionate way to teach this lesson.

Respond to “I’m done.” with these 4 steps:

  1. “Are you sure? Because there won’t be any more food until lunch (or snack, or tomorrow) and you might get hungry before then.”
  2. End the meal if your child insists she is done.
  3. Later, when your child says she’s hungry (whether it’s for real food or for dessert) you need to connect the dots for her.  Tell her the feeling of hunger is the result of not eating.
  4. Then, if this is the FIRST time this has happened…

a) Give your child a glass of milk or something else like a piece of fruit, but not a food your child will actually prefer. (Preferred foods after a sparsely-eaten meal teach kids to hold out.)

b) Tell your child that now she knows that not eating results in hunger so the next time she chooses to end the meal before she’s eaten enough you won’t give her anything until the next regularly scheduled meal or snack.

If this is the SECOND time your child has pulled this maneuver you have to stick to your guns, otherwise there will be a third, fourth and fifth time.  Your child knows the drill and you’re being played. Insist your child wait until the next scheduled meal or snack, even if it’s breakfast. A little hunger won’t hurt your child.  In fact, it’ll help. Read The Upside of Hunger.

4) If your child has a meltdown, don’t give in. 

Instead, fix the fight.  You’re in the realm of a behavior problem, not a food problem. Read Table Manners

5) Sometimes use a strategic backup.

If you have a child who isn’t committed to opposition, but who genuinely doesn’t want to eat what’s being served, you can use a back up. Read How Cottage Cheese Changed My Life.

6) Make sure your kids come to the table hungry.

If you snack-up your kids before meals, you’re setting up a problem.  Remember, what you think of as a light snack, might be just enough sustenance to fuel your kids’ resistance.  They don’t have to be full not to want to eat; some children have to just not be too hungry.

7) Reduce the importance of meals by improving the quality of snacks.

When snacks are upgraded your life gets better.  Read 10 Ways Improving Your Kids’ Snacking Will Improve YOUR Life and Snacking and The Nutrition Zone Mentality.

8) Resist the urge to follow your toddlers around the room spooning food into their mouths as they play.

Remember that toddlers don’t need as much food as you think because they’re not growing as fast as they once were.

Noted pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton writes in his book Touchpoints that the minimum daily requirement for a toddler is:

  • 16 ounces of milk or dairy equivalent in cheese, yogurt, etc.
  • 2 ounces of iron-containing protein (meat or egg for instance), or cereal fortified with iron.
  • 1 ounce of orange juice or fresh fruit
  • 1 multivitamin

Most toddlers I know consume at least this amount.  Record everything your kids eat for a few days and you’ll probably see that yours do too.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~

For more on this topic read Is Feeding the Kids Really Your Job?