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Getting Your Toddler To Eat: The 1 Most Important Thing To Do

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Getting your toddler to eat can be sooooo frustrating, that’s why I’m breaking it down into the one most important thing you need to do. You may even be able to start doing this one thing today, and I’ll explain why it will be so helpful.

You sit down to the table with your precious two-year-old, hoping for a decent meal. Next thing you know, they aren’t eating anything. Nothing at all! You get up and bring them a yogurt. Nothing. You play the “airplane game” where you pretend the spoon is an airplane and try to shove it in their mouth. Nothing. You ask them to take a bite. Nothing. Turns out getting your toddler to eat can be so frustrating!

To help ourselves, many of us turn to screens to get our toddler to eat. It seems helpful, right? Maybe as soon as you started using a screen to get them to eat, they started eating vegetables, eating more variety, and eating more quantity of food. All these things seem great! Maybe that’s why so many parents say they use screens to get their child to eat. According to an informal poll of several thousand people on my Instagram account, well over half of them use a screen to get their child to eat.

So what’s wrong with screens and what is the number one thing to use in their place? Let’s find out.

Free Guide: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Eat Better Without Losing Your Mind

Getting Toddlers to Eat With Screens Causes Them Not To Eat

Having a toddler not eating is SO hard. So, we use screens to get a toddler to eat, but in reality, we may be setting them up to not be able to eat in the future. I know a mom who’s son wasn’t eating very much food as a toddler. She started using a phone to get him to eat. Next thing she knew, he was incapable of eating without a screen in front of him! She carried a screen with her everywhere so that her son would be able to eat if he needed to.

This is a huge problem! We want to avoid this situation where there is a very strong connection between eating and watching a screen. The connection between screens and eating put this mom’s child at risk of not being able to eat enough if a screen wasn’t available. This isn’t the only risk, though.

Split image of a lunchbox with a rainbow of fruits & vegetables, on the left and the same lunchbox on the right with an animal food pick showing you can get your toddler to eat by adding a fun friend to the meal

Free Guide: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Eat Better Without Losing Your Mind

Getting Toddlers to Eat With Screens Encourages Picky Eating

When a toddler is watching a screen, they are checked out of their body. This means, they don’t really know what the food tastes like, feels like, looks like, smells like, or sounds like when they chew it. What happens when they don’t get this information from their senses? They don’t get used to it. Instead of learning to eat, they are just learning to turn off their senses and chew mindlessly – which does get toddlers to eat, but at a cost.

Next time the toddler sees that food without a screen, it may be like a completely new food to them. They may be afraid of it, not sure how to eat it, and they will be more likely to not like it. Many toddlers don’t like new foods and when they don’t see a food regularly, it is new to them. So, if they are constantly eating with screens, many more foods become new to them, and next thing you know, they are rejecting many more foods.

To sum up, the more a child uses a screen during meals, the harder it will be to get them to eat in the long run. Getting a toddler to eat with a screen in the short run, can make your job harder in the long run.

On the right is butter, ketchup and salt to get toddlers to eat, on the right is a tablet which we shouldn't use to get toddlers to eat.

Related: Have a Two-year-old Picky Eater? It May Not Be Your Fault

The Most Important Thing to Do To Get a Toddler to Eat

If you’re aiming to get your toddler to eat on their own and for the rest of their life, family meals are where you are going to find long-term success.

A family meal is any time at least one parent or caregiver sits down with a child and eats with them during a meal or sit-down snack. When the parent sits down with the child, here are a few of the positive things that happen:

  • The parent models how to eat
  • The parent provides a consistent presence, that is hopefully calm and warm
  • The child sees, touches, tastes, smells, and hears their food when they eat it
  • There are no distractions to steal away kids’ attention

When your child has the modeling, the connection, the sensory input, and the focus, they can learn to start eating better.

Related: Wondering How to Feed Your Picky Toddler? Here’s the Answer

Weaning Off the Screen to Get Your Toddler to Eat

If you’ve been using a screen with your toddler during meals, you can think about whether you are ready to let that go. The sooner you help them learn to eat without a screen, the sooner you can get your toddler to eat better.

If you are a “cold turkey” sort of family, you can let your child know, “We are going to stop using screens during meals starting tomorrow. It is going to be really tricky, and you may feel really upset about it. You’re allowed to feel however you want and we’ll get through it together.” (If you need help setting boundaries and managing a change, I highly recommend this workshop I did with parent psychologist Rebecca Kennedy, PhD.)

If your child is underweight, has sensory sensitivities, or you are more of a “slow and steady” family, then I recommend weaning off of screens. You can wean kids off screens by starting meals with 1 minute of screen-free time and slowly increasing the number of minutes each day until you are screen-free. You could also consider having one screen-free snack and slowly increasing the number of screen-free snacks and meals until all meals and snacks are screen free.

Above all, make sure when you are weaning from screens that you are sitting down with your child during those meals and snacks. They need you as they try to navigate this new way of eating.

Related: The Eating Routine That Will End Your Food Battles

Weaning off screens and moving toward distraction free meals is a difficult but important thing to do for getting your toddler to eat food, eat on their own, and improve picky eating. Even if you don’t do it perfectly, it’s important to keep working on it.

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 2 Comments

  1. Hannah Duran

    I feel like we’re doing all the right things but not yet seeing any improvement. Our toddler won’t eat veges or fruit (other than banana and roasted potatoes). I offer veg with all meals and he only eats the meat (and bread if it’s a part of the meal).
    We will persevere but it can be such a frustrating journey!

  2. Janice Hernandez

    Wow. I mean truly wow. This is exactly what I needed. My husband has done the TV & screen time as far as I can remember. And I hated it. Well I have put my foot down this week. My 4yr old hates it. But I will quote her what you wrote because I am a cold turkey parent. And I will work with her every day until she no longer ask for her iPad at meal time & use the guide for her picky eating. Thank you so much for the support.

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