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Feeding issues are among the most common concerns from parents at our 15 month, 18 month and 2 year visits. As a rule there are no quick fixes, but I’ve found that reinforcing best practices and encouraging patience are a great help.

Babies are usually good, compliant eaters and feeding time can be a fun and pleasant experience. Most people wouldn’t say the same thing about feeding a toddler. Often this transformation from a good eater to a problem eater is rapid and parents frequently feel ill-equipped to deal with their toddler’s feeding issues. In an effort to make sure their picky eater gets the nutrition they need, parents will use techniques that are disruptive to a child’s developing relationship with food and self-feeding. Common examples are: using a screen or phone as a distraction while feeding, holding a child’s arms down, following them around the house with the food, or giving a bottle at night when a toddler is sleeping. Almost every parent knows these methods aren’t ideal, but the concern for their toddler’s nutrition can override common sense. 

As I’ve heard one pediatrician say: “the food pyramid wasn’t built in a day.” If your toddler is already experiencing some feeding issues, it’s going to take patience and perseverance to get back on track. Toddler feeding is a balance of supporting your child and giving them the space to learn. Here are some best practices to get you started:

  • Have patience and resist the temptation to do too much for your toddler. A parent’s job is to prepare and present the meal, and a toddler’s job is to eat the food. Things can go wrong quickly when this first principle is violated.
  • Have a family meal whenever possible. Toddlers learn by example, love to imitate their family, and are social eaters. You “feed” a baby, but you eat with a toddler. Try and find a balance between making sure their needs are met, but not doing too much for them.  
  • Promote self-feeding. Starting as early as 6 months, infants are interested in feeding themselves and this interest should be promoted by offering safe, appropriate finger foods. It’s important to respect a toddler’s slowness with feeding and not to rush things. It’s also okay if they are messy. They should be allowed to explore the texture, flavor, and smell of food, which might lead to some ending up in the hair or on the ground.
  • Set them up for success. A toddler needs a good place to sit at the table, typically in a high chair. It’s not a good idea to feed your toddler while they are reclining or to allow them to eat while standing or walking. At 12-15 months a toddler can start to use utensils. I think that toddler-sized, rounded metal utensils are easier for them to use than plastic utensils.
  • Be realistic about amounts. In general, about a quarter of an adult portion is a good place to start. Sometimes a toddler will eat it all up and ask for more. Sometimes it’s on the floor with one sweep of the arm and mealtime is over after a few bites. It’s important to recognize that a toddler may outright refuse a meal from time to time and there is usually no long term consequence. For the most part they get what they need if you average it out over a week. 

For additional information, I give a two hour talk to parents on this topic every year at Kindering and there are still questions at the end! Toddler feeding is clearly an important and complex issue, but thankfully the solutions are fairly straightforward. If you have concerns about your little one, or are having trouble distinguishing between picky eating and a more serious feeding problem, talk with your doctor and come prepared with a list of questions. Your pediatrician is your single best resource and will help you navigate the sea of information you hear from friends, family, and find online. In my opinion, I think the following books and resources are great.

  1. How to get your kids to eat, but not too much by Ellyn Satter
  2. Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insights, Humor and a Bottle of Ketchup by Drs. Laura Jana and Jennifer Shu
  3. Winning the Food Fights

Dr. Rick Keeler is a pediatrician in the Allegro Pediatrics Redmond Ridge office.

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