Young children are easily overwhelmed by large servings, so offer small portions, says Tia Smith, an instructor in the Early Childhood Care and Education Department at Vancouver’s Capilano University. Try placing a little taste of each dish on your child’s plate and allowing her to help herself. Your toddler may finish everything, eat nothing at all, or eat only the potatoes and ask for more. As difficult as it may be, Smith recommends honouring these choices.
Paediatrician Cheryl Mutch recommends serving three small snacks and three small meals a day, as little tummies fill up quickly. Space snacks so as not to interfere with the next meal. “If your child chooses not to eat,” says Mutch, “there is no need to worry, as the next scheduled snack is not too far away.”
Set a routine
Involve babies in family meals from the outset, suggests Smith. Pull the high chair up to the table (and move toddlers to booster seats as soon as they are able). “High chairs can be isolating,” she explains. “By bringing your child to the table, you are showing her that she is a respected member of the family.” That makes kids more likely to take an interest in mealtime.
Toddlers become attached to rituals, so involve your tot in mealtime routines. Your toddler will probably enjoy assisting you with setting the table. You can ask him to help choose meal options (“Should we have carrots or broccoli?”) and try simple food preparation, like ripping up lettuce for a salad or pouring ingredients into your muffin mixture. When toddlers have ownership, says Smith, they are more likely to co-operate during meals and, best of all, more likely to eat their food.
Make one meal for all
Mutch believes that young kids should be eating the same food as the rest of the family. However, it’s a good idea to offer at least one dish you know your toddler likes. On occasion, this could mean she fills up on rice or whole-grain bread, followed by fruit for dessert, and that’s OK.
She advises against offering substitutions, such as a sandwich for fish. “You don’t want your child thinking that if she holds out long enough, something else will be served. This can be a slippery slope, leaving parents feeling exhausted, especially if there is more than one child to please.”
When you adopt a trusting approach to feeding your child, you’ll likely find many mealtime meltdowns can be avoided. When one does occur, says Smith, assess the situation first. Is your child unwell? Is she tired, hungry or teething? More often than not, she is simply trying to communicate.
If your toddler is continually leaving the table without eating, look at the big picture. Is the afternoon snack too close to dinner? Is dinner too late in the day and your child too tired to eat? Corinne Eisler, registered dietitian and paediatric nutrition expert at Raven Song Community Health Centre in Vancouver, says that adults tend to focus on dinner, but for many children breakfast is their main meal.
To temper your own expectations, be sure you’re not hoping for too much too soon. Experts agree it’s unrealistic to expect toddlers to sit at the table for long periods. “Toddlers should be encouraged to eat at their own pace,” says Eisler, “and when they are finished, they should be allowed to get down.” If you want your child to stay seated at the table, Smith recommends making a big effort to engage her in conversation.
If you are concerned about your child’s nutritional intake, take a look what she’s drinking. “Excess milk or juice intake can negatively impact the appetite,” says Mutch, who explains that bottles are a leading cause of nutritional deficiencies in toddlers because they drink more from a bottle than they otherwise would. “Switching to a cup will likely cause him to drink less and eat more.” If your worries persist, see your doctor, who can assess if your child is growing normally.
A version of this article appeared in our Fall/Winter 2013 Baby & Toddler book with the headline "Toddlers at the Table," pp. 45-6.