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5 Ways to Fix Your Toddler’s Eating Habits Without Doing More Harm

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Inside: Your toddler’s eating habits may be frustrating you to no end. Grazing, eating around the house, picky eating, not eating enough, needing the screen- basically it’s driving you crazy. Sure, you could force healthy food down their throat, but we know pressuring kids to eat makes their health worse in the long run. Instead, I’ll show you 5 proven ways to fix your toddler’s eating habits.

“My 2-year-old cries at the meal on the table and then points to the pantry asking for a pouch. He’s too young for me to stand firm and tell him ‘this is all that’s available for the meal.” A desperate parent sent me this message about her toddler’s eating habits before a feeding workshop that Dr. Rebecca Kennedy (Dr. Becky) and I offered.

We’ve all been there. We’ve rushed home, made dinner, put thought and some effort (no matter how big or small) into a meal. We finally get everyone to the table. We finally get everyone sitting down at the table. Then bam, 5 seconds into the meal, our toddler is having a melt down. We didn’t even have a chance to pick up our own fork!

It’s hard. It’s defeating. It’s no fun you see your toddler not eating It’s also something that most parents experience all the time!

Whatever you are going through at dinner, you are not alone with your toddler’s eating habits, but I’ll show you the strategies that Dr. Becky and I taught that can stop unhelpful behaviors and teach you to manage your child’s tantrums and protests so that you have a better relationship with your child and you set the stage for better eating.

Toddler’s Favorite Eating Habits

Left to their own devices, toddler eating habits are predictable! See how many of these habits are standard for your child:

  • Loves to eat 1 food over and over and over
  • Has a list of preferred foods
  • Eats 1 bite of food one day and as much as you the next day
  • You never know what they are going to like
  • If you ask them what you want and you make that food, they reject it
  • Wants to eat every hour
  • Likes white colored foods like crackers, bread, milk, and pasta
  • Throws a tantrum if the banana was opened “wrong”
  • Will eat more and throws less tantrums if a screen is on
  • Is picky with what foods they will eat
  • Often seems to have an opinion about dinner
  • Prefers to wear their dinner instead of eat it
  • Would rather drink milk/formula/pediasure than eat food

The great thing about this list is that it’s true of so many toddlers. You’re a completely normal parent and you have a completely normal child if you checked off a bunch of these toddler eating habits!

Letting a child run the eating show, however, is stressful for your child, builds unhelpful eating habits, and can lead to more picky eating. Not to mention, it increases your stress and frustration.

Instead, you can use the following 5 strategies to help your child eat better, have confidence to hold your boundaries as the parent, and to feel a lot less defeated in the process.

Strategy 1: To Improve Toddler Eating Habits, Let them Choose Whether to Eat

Think with me, how many times have you gotten into a huge dinner battle with your child? They don’t want to eat and you DO want them to eat. It’s so frustrating for you as the parent to see your toddler not eating.

To get them to eat, then, you jump in and start bargaining, “Take 2 more bites to get down!” “You have to finish your plate before you get down.” “No dessert until you eat dinner.” “You have to have 3 bites of everything on your plate.”

I’ve been there. You’ve been there. We’ve all been there. We also all know what happens next. Major protest. Meltdowns. Anger. Fighting at the table. Tears.

The fastest way to end food battles is to allow your child to choose whether or not to eat. That means that you will be allowing your child the ability to sometimes choose not to eat a meal. That’s okay, as Dr. Becky and discussed in our feeding workshop Parenting Around Food: What to Do, Why it Matters, Managing Protest and Meltdowns, hunger is a sensation that can teach us a lot about our bodies and what they want and need.

To truly allow a child to choose whether or not to eat, it means that you stop pressuring them to eat in any way. Pressure to eat comes in many forms.

Plate full of dinner on the left which reads "Finish your plate" on the right is the same dinner plate and reads "Is your tummy full?" to show how the language parents use can affect toddler eating habits

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “You have to finish your plate!”
  • “You can’t get done until you eat 2 bites of everything.”
  • “You have to try everything.”
  • “Try it! You’ll like it!”
  • “You have to try it!”
  • “This is good for you, you have to eat it.”

Dr. Becky taught us in this workshop, that pressuring kids teaches them that they don’t know what their body’s need and that they need to look to someone else to know what they need. This has lifelong implications as they learn to make decisions for themselves and their lives.

Along with allowing them to choose whether to eat at all, we need to allow them to choose how much to eat, the second important strategy.

Strategy 2: Your Toddlers Eating Habits Can Improve When They Are In Charge of How Much they Eat.

Along with allowing your child the space to choose whether or not to eat, they also need space to choose how much to eat. Basically, it’s not our job to force feed peas and broccoli. While that may seem “wrong” to improve your toddler’s eating habits by telling them they don’t have to eat things, it can actually make a huge improvement.

How do we pressure kids to eat foods? We say things like this:

  • “I’m so proud of you for eating your peas!”
  • “Look at how many potatoes you ate, that will make you big and strong.”
  • “You have to finish your plate.”
  • “No dessert unless you eat a good dinner.”
  • “You have to eat 3 more bites if you want dessert.”
  • “You have to take 2 bites of each food.”
  • “We don’t waste food. You have to eat it all.”
  • “You can’t get down from the table until you eat your food.”

All of these things, Dr. Becky helps us understand, engage our desire to push back and not eat anything at all. So, not only do we create the food battles that we want to avoid, we also engage our kids’ desire to fight against us instead of learning to listen to their own bodies.

Instead, we can remind kids that they can eat food when they are ready. We can say “you don’t have to eat it” or “you can eat it when you’re ready.” When we use these phrases, we end most food battles before they even start.

We don’t stop with these 2 strategies, however. We pair up with our jobs as the parent to help kids learn to improve their eating habits as we help with the eating environment.

Strategy 3: Serve Meals in an Eating Place to Help Improve Toddler Eating Habits

Just because you are allowing your toddler to choose whether or not to eat and how much, does not mean that they are in charge of mealtime.

In fact, as Dr. Becky and I explained, it is our job as parents to provide consistent, healthy boundaries for our children. That is true in the car with the carseat, and it is also true at mealtimes.

We start with the boundary of where food is served. Rather than serving food anywhere in the house, with screens on, we serve meal in designated areas with no distractions. This means learning to feed your child without screens and distractions.

Additionally, as the parent, you get to choose the eating places. Maybe your family eats at the table and in the kitchen. Maybe your family eats on a blanket in the living room. Wherever your family eats, anytime there is food outside of those places, it is immediately brought back to the eating place and the food stays there.

When a child protests, Dr. Becky recommends connecting and empathizing with your child, and holding the boundary firm. It is okay for them to protest against this new rule. In fact, it’s great that they are expressing their feelings about it. It is also important for you to hold your boundary firm.

Strategy 4: Improve Toddler Eating Habits by Serving Meals on a Schedule/Routine.

Grazing is one of the leading causes of cavities, picky eating, and kids eating the wrong amount for their body. Grazing is when kids eat tiny bits every hour or 2. Instead of grazing, it’s important for parents to set an eating routine/schedule so that kids’ bodies and minds are ready for eating.

Having a meal schedule allows you to plan out meals and sit-down snacks ahead of time. It also allows kids to get hungry in between meals and snacks. Rather than letting kids eat whenever they want, you help them learn to eat when they are hungry by providing the structure that they need.

I recommend 3 meals per day, and then you can decide if snacks are right for your family, but no more than 6 eating opportunities each day. That means up to 3 meals and 3 snacks depending on your child’s needs.

In between meals and sit-down snacks, you can serve water if a child is thirsty and help them wait for the next meal or snack when they have the sensation of hunger.

Yes, it is completely reasonable that your child will have a lot of feelings and protest if they have always grazed and now they are experiencing hunger for the first time ever. In the workshop, Dr. Becky walked us through how to talk to a child who is protesting over not getting food right now. We can both help empathize with them, that they are hungry, and also hold our healthy boundary firm.

Strategy 5: Serve One Meal for the Whole Family to Improve Your Toddler’s Eating Habits

Finally, we bring it all together in one family meal. Catering to picky eaters is the fastest way to keep kids picky and hurt their eating habits over the long term. Instead, as the parents, we choose what foods we serve to our children for meals and sit-down snacks.

When we make meals and snacks, they should all have a protein and fat source, a starchy food or two, and a fruit and/or vegetable (or more). This sort of balance allows kids the ability to choose whether or not to eat and how much, and still get what they need over the course of the day and week.

In addition, each meal or snack should include a “safe food” for the child. This is a food that they generally like and could fill up on if they didn’t want to eat anything else at the meal.

This may be a big change for your family to go from cooking multiple meals to serving one family meal. A toddler may be really upset when they didn’t get mac and cheese at a meal, when they wanted it. It may be even more difficult, because they used to get mac and cheese whenever they asked for it.

When we are making changes, Dr. Becky outlines a list of strategies to help make the transitions smoother. She especially recommends talking to kids ahead of time to let them know that a change will be coming.

Plate filled with cheese crackers on the left that reads "What they ask for" Plate filled with a cheese stick, peach and red pepper stars that reads "What I serve them" to show how strong parenting skills are needed to help toddler eating habits

Feeding Toddlers and Children Can Result in a Lot of Meltdowns

What about all the other scenarios that happen when you start using these 5 rules. What if you really are struggling with managing the meltdowns that happen every single time you set a boundary with your child? How do you handle protests at bedtime or around dessert?

If you’d like more in-depth teaching on these scenarios, I highly recommend the affordable recorded workshop offered by Dr. Becky and I. We teach you what to do in all of these scenarios and struggles. Dr. Becky offers invaluable insight into how to manage protest and maintain your connection with your child, even as you hold your boundary firm as the parent. You’ll leave the workshop feeling empowered and full of tools to start using today.

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. Bri

    Our 16mo will not stay seated for any meal. We always start in his highchair. He isn’t even finishing his fruit anymore (his safe food) before wanting to get up. It’s not that he’s not hungry. He will take bites, but I know how dangerous it is. I would love to sit down and enjoy meals as a family again. Will the workshop help with this? Otherwise, he does a fabulous job.

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