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5 Secrets for Turning Any Meal Into a Meal Your Toddler Will Eat

5 Secrets for Turning Any Meal Into a Meal Your Toddler Will Eat

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Inside: Looking for meals toddlers will eat? There are 5 secrets to turning the meal you just made into a meal your toddler will eat. Plus I’ll give you 10 toddler-friendly meals!

You’re looking at your darling child having a full-on tantrum. Turns out, they wanted plain pasta, not pasta with the sauce on it. How could you?! So you get them a clean plate, give them plain pasta, no sauce. They flip it over and cry for a granola bar. “Cry” doesn’t do it justice. Finally, just wanting to make the whole thing stop, you go get what your toddler wants. You’re exhausted, you feel defeated.

More than anything, you want to make a meal your toddler will just eat, no battles on the side. Are there special meals that toddlers eat? You’re searching for meals that toddlers eat, but I’ll show you that it’s less about the food and more about mealtime. I’ll show you my 5 secrets to turning meals into meals toddlers eat and show you 10 easy meal ideas that are toddler-friendly.

1. Stop Pressuring Your Child to Eat the Meal

Toddlers want to be independent more than anything in the world. They are also just figuring things out, like if you peel a banana wrong the first time, there’s no magic to put it back together. Oh banana tantrums, am I right?

Parents pressuring kids to eat is one of the top reasons toddlers won’t eat meals. Because if you are a toddler and you want to be independent, and someone tells you to eat 5 peas, what are you going to do?

Not eat the peas. You will die on the hill of not eating peas.

Your toddler doesn’t have anything better to do. They will die on the hill of not eating dinner. And there is no magical “meal” that will actually get your toddler to eat. It’s not always about the food.

Honor Their Independence

So, do your child a favor and honor their independence with their body. They should be able to choose what to eat and how much to eat. I suggest stopping all forms of pressuring your child to eat at meal time.

That means stop telling them to try a bite. Stop telling them 3 more bites. Stop bribing them with dessert. Just put the food on the table or on their plate and call it a day. Whether they eat it is up to them.

Related: Child not eating? 5 Things to Check Right Now

2. Own Your Role As the Parent to Make Meals Toddlers Will Eat.

Giving your child independence over their body is not the end of the story though. If you don’t own your role in mealtimes, your child may start calling the shots. Soon you may find yourself on the toddler meal rotation of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, not a veggie to be seen.

Kid Food

You may have heard of “kid food” before. It’s a code word for processed foods toddlers and kids like on the very first bite. They are meals toddlers will always eat. Kids need lots of exposures to learn to eat other kinds of foods. Unprocessed foods, the ones we want our kids to eat a lot of, may take more time to learn to like.

So we need to steer ourselves toward serving balanced unprocessed foods most of the time. This gives toddlers plenty of experience to learn to like a variety of foods.

split image with fish sticks & tater tots on the left - a meal toddlers will eat and home made french fries with roasted veggies on the right - a meal that toddlers will learn how to eat.

Your Job As the Parent

As the parent it’s your job to decide what foods are served at meals and snacks. A meal and snack schedule is helpful for this. It makes sure your child is hungry. It’s also important not to have screens while the child is eating. Make sure they are eating in a designated eating area.

When you are creating meals for your child, make sure that there is at least one food that they usually like on the table. After that, build out the meal and do not make another meal. Even if they throw a tantrum and scream for mac and cheese, that’s it. This is the meal.

Gosh, that sounds harsh.

Trust me, serving your child a balanced meal with one food that you know they usually like, is very nurturing. You’re doing a great job.

If they don’t want to eat it, it’s okay! They will have another meal or snack coming soon. If you want to read more about this, you may enjoy my free 14-page child feeding guide.

Related: The Most Overlooked Reason Your Child is Not Eating Food

3. Toddlers Will Eat Meals That Are Separated

This is a “hack” that many parents think is a crutch. They are afraid to use it. I say (and I’m a registered dietitian), “Go for it!” Serve your meals “deconstructed.” Make meals so that all the parts can be separated out.

Toddlers often won’t eat meals that are mixed together, because mixed foods are unpredictable. They don’t know what to expect from the experience. Maybe they will get a piece of slimy mushroom with a piece of crunchy topping. Yikes!

I suggest steering clear of casseroles, and instead focusing on meals that can be served as different parts. More in my list of 10 meals down below.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to End Toddler Throwing Food

Split image on the left is a mixed taco salad - an example of a mixed meal that toddlers will not eat, on the right is a deconstructed taco salad as an example of a meal that toddlers will eat

4. Toddlers Will Eat Meals That Are Easy to Chew

One reason that toddlers will not eat meals, is that they are full of foods that are much too difficult for them to chew. Raw vegetables and fruits are often not appropriate for small children.

Here are a few things that you can do to make hard foods in meals easier and safer for toddlers to chew:

  • Slightly cook hard fruits and veggies like carrots, apples, celery, etc.
  • Shred crunchy fruits and veggies
  • Steam veggies
  • Dice fruits and veggies like cucumber, tomatoes, strawberries,
  • Grind up nuts and seeds and mix with something like applesauce or yogurt
  • Slow roast chicken and fish in the oven at a low temperature with foil or a lid covering it during cooking

Avoid dishes where foods are too crisp, as toddlers are unlikely to eat meals when they have to chew the food for 5 minutes.

Chewing is a skill that children learn over time. Usually by age 4, children are able to fully chew using rotary chewing. This enables them to chew things like nuts and hard things. Until then, we can cut things up and cook them.

5. Toddlers Will Eat Meals With a New Utensil

I’ve been amazed with my own two kids, how they are so happy to eat almost anything with a new utensil. Toddlers love to start to learn utensil skills.

Maybe they just start with banging a fork against their rice, but this will eventually turn into eating rice with a fork. Toddlers love to start to use forks, spoons, “baby” knives, and some older ones (2+) may start to enjoy toothpicks. And it goes without saying, all meals and snacks should be supervised with toddlers.

If you are looking for specific utensils that your child will use to eat with, I compiled a helpful list in Top 11 Eating Utensils for Kids.

Image of broccoli with a fun forklift utensil that makes it a meal toddlers will eat

10 Balanced Meals that Toddlers Will Eat

Here are 10 meals that toddlers can learn to love when they are served without pressure and with a parent in charge of mealtime.

You can serve all of these foods completely separately, so that “the sauce isn’t touching”, and they can be made easy to chew.

Chicken & Veggies

Slow roasted chicken (cooked in the oven covered with foil)
White rice served with butter or olive oil
Roasted carrots (cook drizzled with oil and covered with foil in the oven)

Grilled Cheese & Soup

Grill whole grain bread with cheese
Veggie-based soup like tomato soup or mixed vegetable soup
Serve with diced soft fruit like pears or strawberries

Fish & Veggies

Slow roasted fish (cooked in the oven covered with foil)
Quinoa (rinsed before cooking to make softer and taste better) served with butter or olive oil
Roasted broccoli (cook with drizzled oil and covered with foil in the oven)

Veggie Pizza with Salad

Make homemade pizzas together, let them put toppings on
Cut up into small pieces after cooked
Side salad (chop lettuce into tiny pieces so that your toddler can manage them and shred any hard veggies you add, like carrots)
Clementines, chopped small

Pasta with Meatballs

Pasta
Pasta sauce
Meatballs (diced small)
Serve everything separately and allow your child to choose what they want.
Shredded raw carrots on the side
Steamed broccoli

Tacos

Ground taco meat/beans
Corn tortillas
Diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and finely shredded purple cabbage
Shredded cheese
Mashed avocado

Scrambled Eggs & Toast

Scrambled eggs
Whole grain toast with butter or peanut butter
Applesauce, unsweetened
Steamed broccoli (don’t forget veggies for breakfast)

Yogurt Parfaits

Plain unsweetened yogurt
Shredded apples and carrots
Give them the option of mixing things together

Beans and Rice

Canned beans, heated
White rice
Shredded cheese
Frozen peas and carrots, cooked
Give them the option of adding things together

If you need more meal and snack ideas that are great for families with kids ages 1+, you might be interested in Real Easy Weekdays.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Hi! What have you found to be some of the best serving trays to separate food? On a bit of a budget…

    1. Jennifer uses silicone cupcake liners a lot! You could use paper ones or small bowls or divided plates. 🙂

    2. Hi! Just a random mom here… Unsure if these are the best but I just bought two kinds of divided plates at Target that have 3 sections, they were $0.59 & $0.99 each! You can also use little bowls or silicone muffin cups to separate the different items like she showed in the taco bowl example. Or if you have a muffin tin or ice cube tray you can use those as serving trays.

      https://www.target.com/p/10-plastic-kids-divided-dinner-plate-red-pillowfort-8482/-/A-54236228

      https://www.target.com/p/7-3-plastic-divided-kids-dinner-plate-red-pillowfort-8482/-/A-54236166

  2. Claire, I’m sure Jennifer will respond but I recommend buying Amazon basics silicon muffin liners. You can use on any plate – they’re colorful and fun!

  3. Curious about the white rice (vs brown). Isn’t it pretty devoid of nutrients?

  4. I cant wait to start implementing a lot of these things starting tomorrow.. this is amazing! Thank you so much

  5. Hi there! Regarding casseroles etc – once or twice a week we serve a curry, stir fry etc. that I know my 2.5 year old won’t be keen on due to its mixed, sauce-y nature. There’s always one or two elements that are kept separate and I know she likes, and I figure for the rest it’s an ‘exposure’ to the family meal. Now I’m wondering if that’s pushing the concept of ‘exposure’. Any advice?

  6. I am finding all of your posts and blog articles to be very helpful – thank you!

    I have a very verbal, communicative, and independent 2.5 year old girl (she is my first and only as of right now). I have always exposed her to all foods and started feeding her purées and solid foods on the earlier side. She loves all fruit, tries veggies, and we have been using Amy’s “serve dessert with dinner” trick (it works beautifully). We have never restricted foods / treats.

    My issue is…NOODLES. She asks for them with every meal (I get away with NOT serving it for breakfast), but it is the one food she always wants and asks for with everything. I find myself serving it as “the one food your child will eat,” along with whatever my husband and I are having. The problem is that I feel as though I’m making a separate meal for her every time I cook. It has to be Mac and cheese, with butter / plain, or with sauce. It just feels counterproductive and counterintuitive at this point. It is difficult, then, for her to explore anything else on the plate for lunch / dinner. If I don’t serve it, it is not likely she will eat anything else.

    Is it OK to continue down this path? Should I ditch the noodles and she’ll catch on? What are your thoughts?

  7. Thank you! Your techniques are working wonders in our household 🙂

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