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Toddler Mealtime Tips: Picky eaters, choking hazards and more

While it’s genuinely fantastic when your little one can finally self-feed, a whole crop of new problems can arise. Here are some solutions to help you with the biggest hurdles:

The problem: My toddler throws more food than she eats

Gravity – it’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Your toddler is testing out the world to see how things work, and banging a spoon and flinging a handful of peas are part of this set of experiments. Try these tips for next time:

  • Put a small amount of food in front of her. Keep replenishing her dollops of food when she’s done. As long as she’s tasting some, you’re good to go.
  • Ignore the throwing and banging. She’s working on physics and sound, and that’s great. Mealtime should be enjoyable. Don’t make a big deal out of the toss-return, toss-return of utensils and food or it becomes a game in itself.
  • Know that you’re in for a mess until your toddler gets better fine motor control and becomes familiar with mealtime expectations and basic manners.

The problem: My toddler is picky and won’t eat new foods

Toddlers are biologically built to be picky eaters. Through evolution, this trait may have developed because it makes very mobile, but not yet danger-aware, little ones less likely to eat something poisonous (little does your toddler know the steamed broccoli you’re serving is just the opposite). A selective, slightly wary stance towards food is a natural part of toddlerhood.

That being said, the second year of life is an important time to build a healthy relationship to food and expand your toddler’s palate when possible. If you’re introducing solids, your child hasn’t really hit a selective stage yet, so take this as your opportunity to introduce as wide a variety of tastes and textures as you can – this will help you ride the virtually inevitable picky period headed your way.

Keep these tips in mind when up against a picky eater:

  • Think about your child’s eating this way: it’s your job to decide what and when to eat, and it’s her job to decide whether and how much to eat. Once you’ve put the healthy choices on her plate, forcing her to take bites sends the message that she’s not in control of her own appetite. To have a healthy food relationship, it’s helpful for kids to tune into their own hunger cues and decide how much they want.
  • If the options you give her are healthy and heavy on the veggies, you’re off to a good start. A recent study showed that kids eat more vegetables overall when they are given choices, especially after the age of two. Instead of just offering asparagus, have a few bowls of cut cucumbers, steamed asparagus, and chopped avocado or put a few of each on your toddler’s plate. If one gets eaten, consider it a success.
  • Are you labeling or assuming when it comes to food? When your toddler turns up her nose at a food, frame it in your head as she doesn’t know this food, rather than she doesn’t like this food. Remember a toddler’s innate selective stance. Offer a food at least six times (without any emotional tie or reaction if you can help it) before you take a break and re-introduce that food a month or so later. If your toddler scrunches up her face after a taste of something, say, different, huh? Instead of labeling anything as yucky, laughing (hard sometimes, since they make such funny faces), or telling the other adults you’re with that she doesn’t like that food. If you keep offering it from time to time and eating it yourself in front of your toddler, she may come around.
  • Start with a hungry toddler. Is she filling up on snacks or milk before a meal? See if you can keep the snacking at bay at least an hour before it’s time to come to the table.
  • Know that toddler portions are small. A half piece of whole grain bread with some avocado spread on it seems like a tiny amount to us, but it’s a whopping serving to an 18-month-old.
  • Don’t sweat individual meals. Your toddler may eat only pasta for dinner, but if she had some cheese and fruit at snack, a vegetable serving yesterday for lunch, and so on, she’s probably getting the nourishment she needs – just stretched out over the week instead of being well-balanced at every meal.

The problem: My child is a wanderer – he won’t stay at the table

  • Again, make sure he’s not over-snacking or drinking and that he’s actually hungry when he gets to the table.
  • If he’s in a booster, pull him right up to the table and eat along with him. That will make him less likely to want to break free and get down.
  • With older toddlers and children, take the focus off eating the food and put it on the conversation. When your two-year-old says all done, instead of saying No, you have to eat one more bite of pasta, say, Oh no, it’s still lunchtime. Hey, did you see that fire truck earlier today? Introduce the idea that while you don’t have to eat, you have to sit for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While you’re busy talking 18-wheelers, your child might very well start nibbling at his meal again. Remember, it’s your job to decide what and when food gets eaten, and your child’s to decide whether to eat, and how much.
  • Keep the distractions to a minimum. If the TV is on or other kids are playing, it’s hard to keep your toddler at the table. See if you can get everyone eating at once – even if that means little ones eating their meal in the early afternoon while you snack on a bowl of chopped vegetables along with them (knowing that you may eat dinner later, for example).

Tips for common choking hazards (hot dogs, popcorn, nuts, grapes)

  • Even though your child can tackle solid foods, it’s still important to cut them up into toddler-sized bites. Chop grapes in half and slice hotdogs lengthwise since they are the perfect size to get caught in little throats.
  • It’s never too early to reinforce the idea that you don’t talk with food in your mouth (to avoid choking, not necessarily for good table manners). Coach your toddler through taking small bites and chewing well before she moves on.
  • Relax and eat slowly yourself. Your toddler is taking cues from your eating behavior, so transmit the message that there’s no rush, and see if you can take your time while eating, too.
  • Also watch out for these common choking hazards:
  • Cherries with pits
  • Meat
  • Hard candy
  • Nuts
  • Hot dog, whole chunks
  • Popcorn kernels
  • Raisins
  • Raw apples, pears, carrots, beans
  • Stringy foods
  • Whole olives
  • Whole grapes
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