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The 1 Thing You Need To Know When Feeding Toddlers

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Inside: Feeding Toddlers can seem complicated, so this article will simplify everything into just 1 secret that you need to know. It will decrease food battles, help your toddler eat healthy, and reduce your stress.

“My child was such a great eater. He used to eat absolutely everything – any vegetable, fruit, dinner, breakfast. You name it, he would eat it. It was amazing” she proudly told me.

“Then he turned one and it was like I got a new kid. He wouldn’t eat anything at all! He started throwing food. Later he started throwing these crazy tantrums. He won’t eat any vegetables now. I don’t know where I went wrong, I feel like I failed my child.”

Sound familiar?

Feeding toddlers is tricky.

I know from personal experience with my own 2 kids and I’m a registered dietitian.

You can read whole books on feeding toddlers. But guess what?

There’s only 1 thing you need to know when feeding your child. One thing will completely change everything for you when you put it into practice. Ready?

Parents are in charge of meal structure and toddlers are in charge of their bodies.

You can stop reading now, but you may have some questions. Let’s unpack what this means for feeding toddlers in five parts.

Parents are in Charge of the Meal Structure for Feeding Toddlers

What does it mean that parents are in charge of meal structure? In fact, what in the world is “meal structure”?

Meal structure means everything about meals:

  • Meals and Snacks
  • What food is served during meals and snacks
  • What food is in the house
  • When meals and snacks are served
  • How meals and snacks are served
  • Where meals and snacks are served

Basically, if it has to do with the when, where, what, and how of meals and snacks, it’s part of “meal structure.” When it comes to meal structure, rest assured, it’s your job. It’s a big job, I know! Those kids keep needing to eat every single day!

Let’s talk more specifically about what is part of the meal structure and how you are going to captain your meal structure ship.

Image of what to serve when your trying to feed toddlers but all they want is goldfish crackers. Green & Red Vegetables with a home made muffin & blackberries.

Feed Toddlers on a Meal and Snack Schedule

While your child was an infant, you may have fed “on demand.” This means you watched for when your baby showed signs of hunger, and then you feed them.

That’s great! They were on the breast milk/formula ship, where liquid gold was available whenever and wherever they wanted. Lucky little darlings.

That all changes when babies join you on the solid food ship. On the solid food ship food is not available whenever and wherever you want. On the solid food ship, the parent sets the food schedule and it’s eating time when it’s eating time.

That means that you need to have a meal and snack schedule for your toddlers. Plan to feed your toddler every 2-3 hours. Have 3 meals and anywhere from 0-3 snacks.

Some kids don’t need snacks, but I find most toddlers need to be fed at least 1 snack per day, most have 2. Then there are some that need 3 snacks based on their schedule and situation. Don’t schedule more than 3 meals and 3 snacks a day.

You may run a “tight ship” with a very strict schedule, or you may run a “relaxed ship” where you have a strong routine, but you take a relaxed approach to the clock. Either can work, but stick to it so that your child knows when meals and snacks are coming.

And no, “grazing” is not helpful for your toddler. Grazing means that your child eats small frequent amounts throughout the day. This can cause kids to lose touch with their sense of hunger and fullness. It can contribute to cavities. It can cause them to eat foods that don’t nourish them.

Feeding on a schedule helps toddlers learn to be hungry and full, and to be hungry for nutritious meals.

Related: End Whining With This Simple Snack Hack

A rainbow of snack items lined up by category of Fruit + Protein + Fat + Veggie showing the perfect snack formula for feeding toddlers

You Decide What to Feed Your Toddler

On the solid food ship, the “cook” decides what is on the menu. It makes sense, right? The cook knows how to feed everyone to make sure they have healthy options. They know what food is on the ship and how much money is in the food budget. The cook went shopping and planned out the meals.

Toddlers don’t know what they need to eat in order to be healthy, happy kids.

A toddler planned meal may look like this.

Image of pretzels and candy covered chocolates as an example of what it looks like when you are feeding toddlers what they choose to eat

As a parent, you may agree with me, that meal looks awesome! I also know my toddler would be a horrible mess if that is what they ate for lunch. They would be tantruming all afternoon long.

That’s why it’s not up to our toddler ship buddies to be the cooks. They get to eat, but not plan.

As the parent, it’s your job to decide what foods will be served at each meal.

This means that your toddler doesn’t get to decide. You may choose to offer them 2 choices sometimes. For example, “Would you like an apple or a pear?” That is the extent of it. They may cry or tantrum for the same food all day, and that’s okay. You’re still the cook on the ship though. They can express their opinion. You decide what you will offer.

When you are planning meals, you will decide what foods to make available to your toddler for them to choose from.

Image of a plate with cucumbers, strawberries, grapes, a nut butter spread, and a baking cup with a few pretzels inside as an example of what you should serve when feeding toddlers

Related: Need Help Menu Planning? Grab My Free Printable Shopping List & Meal Planner!

Simplified Nutrition Guide to Feeding Toddlers

Here are a few nutrition guidelines to follow when you are planning what to serve for meals and snacks as well:

  • A protein food at every meal or snack (meat, beans, tofu, eggs, nut/seed butter, or dairy)
  • A green veggie every day
  • An orange veggie every day
  • A fat source at every meal and snack
  • A fruit and/or veggie at every meal and snack
  • 2 servings of milk/dairy per day (or alternative)
  • Grains with at least half being whole grains
  • Make sure there is at least one food your child is comfortable with and likes most of the time as part of the meal

Meals toddlers will eat tend to meals that are fed to them using the exact techniques we are discussing right now. It’s less about the food and more about how toddlers are fed. That said, picky eating is a totally different topic and may not be related to how you are feeding your child.

Related: Child Suddenly Not Eating? 5 Things To Check Right Now

You Decide Where Food is Served to Toddlers

On the solid food ship, food is only served in the eating place. That’s it! Decide where you will feed your child and feed them there.

Once toddlers learn to move, they often don’t want to sit for meals! That’s okay. Don’t expect them to stay for long. The food needs to be ready for them to eat as soon as they sit down.

Make sure your child is sitting for meals. It’s not safe for your child to be eating while away from the table or your normal eating place. Toddlers should only eat while seated.

Additionally, you want to make sure that you are doing the following things to make mealtime as successful as possible for your child. The following practices will make sure they are learning to eat nutritious foods, social skills and connecting with you:

  • Eating with you and the whole family
  • Eating without screens, books, or toys
  • Eating in a calm and positive environment

Related: The Ultimate Guide To End Toddler Throwing Food

Toddlers are in Charge of Feeding Their Bodies

Now that you’ve established the rules on the solid food ship, it’s time to talk about your child. While it’s your job to make the rules about mealtime, it’s your child’s responsibility to decide what happens with their body. Let’s look at what that means.

Toddlers Decide Whether To Eat Foods

When your toddler sits down to meals, they get to decide whether they will eat it or not.

You may have gone to a large effort to make sure there are plenty of nutritious foods on the table. Or you may have made a basic meal. Your job is done.

Now your toddler takes over and decides if they will eat all, some or none of the foods available at the meal. This is their choice and they should be given this choice with no pressure whatsoever.

I never recommend pressuring a child in any way. When you pressure a toddler, you get a battle, a tantrum, and a child who becomes more picky. It’s not going to give you what you were hoping for.

Instead, give them a calm table with family, nutritious options, and a meal schedule so that they are showing up to the table hungry.

They may decide not to eat and that is okay! They have another meal or snack right around the corner (thanks to that meal/snack schedule you have!)

Related: 5 Secrets For Turning Any Meal Into A Meal Toddlers Will Eat

Toddlers Decide How Much to Food to Eat

You may feel like you know exactly how much food your child needs to eat in order to be healthy. Maybe you think your child is “too skinny” or “too stalky.” Let me assure you that babies, toddlers, and children come in all shapes and sizes. This means that it is not possible for you to tell if your child is eating the right amount of food by looking at them.

If you have a concern about your child’s weight, talk to your pediatrician about your child’s growth charts. If your child is verbal, don’t do this in front of your child. Do this over the phone or ask for an appointment where you can talk to them without your child present.

Do not try to change your toddler’s food portions based on how they look or what you think they need.

Toddlers will often eat “nothing” one day, and “as much as you” another day! This is typical toddler behavior. What they are doing is listening to what their body needs. Our bodies don’t need the same amount of food every day.

Feeding toddlers can be helpful for us adults, because they show us what healthy eating looks like. Healthy eating is listening to what our body needs each day. That may mean we eat a lot one day and hardly anything another day. Our body can tell us when we are hungry and when we are full. Toddlers are often good at listening to their bodies.

Parent Hang Ups With Feeding Toddlers

Parents often feel upset when they see their toddler eating only plain pasta as part of a meal. They may feel concerned, worried, or anxious when they see their toddler skip a meal. They may want to get up from the table and make something else, but that leads to chaos on the ship. It also can lead to feeding problems and picky eating.

Toddlers can be safe, happy, and healthy when they occasionally choose not to eat during a meal or snack. You, the parent, will provide another nutritious meal or snack for them in just a few hours or in the morning. They can drink water if they are thirsty in the meantime.

Feeding kids can be tricky, but if you set up your solid food ship with a strong structure and you allow your child to decide whether to eat and how much, you will have everything you need to keep sailing forward.

Jennifer Anderson

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian with a masters of science in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the founder and CEO of Kids Eat In Color - the world’s leading resource for helping get kids on the path to eating better without the mealtime battles.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. LG

    This all makes perfect sense! My little one is 16 months though and still learning to feed himself. I give him a lot of bites. Does the note about him feeding himself still apply? Wondering if I’m impeding his feeding independence by helping him.

    1. meagan

      Babies should feed themselves! So they choose exactly what they want out of the foods you put in front of them on their tray and how much they eat of it! That way we don’t overfeeding them. I cut the food into appropriate sizes for age. My 8 month old started eating solids at 6 months, no “baby food”- just everything we are eating cut in appropriate sizes for her to grab with her fist- so long strips kinda like what a steak fonger would look like but you choose how wide. Anyways my 8 month old does great with feeding herself already and its so awesome to see what she chooses to eat first ☺

  2. Melnyk


  3. Jessica P.

    Thank you for this! It makes so much sense. My almost 3 year old has been picking at what I am making for meal times, but then asking for snacks almost immediately after the meal is over. We are ready to begin a stricter schedule for when we eat. 🙂

  4. Amber

    Is 4:30 too early for supper for a 14 month old? I find that if I feed a snack at 4:30 after school, he doesn’t eat dinner around 6.

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