Five Changes I Made to Help My Toddler Eat Better

by Lara on April 29, 2014

I don’t know if it’s genetics, personality, or something I did wrong with baby-led weaning, but Gray isn’t “in” to food the way I hoped he would be.  Indeed, some of his favorite foods are very healthy (lentils, eggs, any fruit, spinach, raw carrots and bell peppers are his current favorites), but to me his palate seems limited, and he is reluctant to eat anything “assembled”–sandwiches, casseroles, soup; he prefers finger foods.  Some days he eats so little that I really do not know how he has such boundless energy.

Five Changes I Made to Help My Toddler Eat Better

So last month I set out to learn more about how I can help him become a “good” eater.  I put quotes around good because it’s a pretty subjective term.  My hopes for him are pretty simple in theory: to enjoy eating a variety of healthy foods, and to retain his inborn ability to regulate his intake.  At this age, table manners are not a top priority, though I would like for him to be able to sit in his high chair for the duration of dinner (some nights this is a struggle).

As is my style, I went on a bit of a reading bender.

Getting Your Toddler to Eat

Enter: five books promising to teach me how to get my kid to eat well.  You can read about each book on Daily Mom, but here are some of the decisions I made after my crash course:

  • Each author has a slightly different approach, but BY FAR, the overarching theme is:  do not get into a power struggle.  Do not negotiate.  Do not cajole.  Do not bribe.  This is SO.  DIFFICULT.  Though I have never negotiated at the table, I have often encouraged (err, begged), and found that the more I want G to eat, the less he eats.  I am working very hard to reduce this behavior in myself.  Though I hate to disrupt family dinners, I sometimes have to leave the table in order to do this.  Matthew is much better at letting G eat uninterrupted.
  • Have set meal and snack times and discourage eating outside of those times.  This can be difficult for us when we go to the gym or a play date where they give out snacks, but I am learning to incorporate those into his eating schedule.  Nowadays, we offer meals/snacks to G four times a day: when he wakes up, before nap, after nap, and at dinner time.  His morning meal is the most relaxed, as he wakes up early, so he starts eating with Matthew and usually continues to nibble with me later in the morning.  I cut him off at 9am.    
  • Offer foods I know he likes mixed with those he is learning to like.  Because I hate seeing him reject food, I fell into only offering him his favorite foods for a while.  This obviously wasn’t helping him expand his palate.  Now I include at least one food that will encourage him to get out of his comfort zone.  It helps when I silently don’t expect him to eat it.  He’s been surprising me lately with what he will eat!
  • Give him some choices during mealtime (or at least the appearance of them).  This is the time when toddlers are trying to establish their autonomy, so I try to offer options all day, but especially around meals, to make the whole experience more positive.  Little things like letting him choose his own fork, his own plate, fill his water cup (with close supervision!), and climb into his high chair himself have all helped mealtimes go more smoothly.  Sometimes we will also let him choose one of his foods, usually which fruit he wants for dessert, from two options.  
  • If I’m serving it, he can have as much or as little of it as he wants.  Yes, this means he can have more bread even if he hasn’t had much broccoli (see: no negotiation).  But it also means he doesn’t get to ask for crackers if I’m not serving them; the food at the table are his only options.  Oh, and he gets dessert regardless of what or how much he ate at dinner.  This is all part of the “Division of Responsibility” outlined in Child of Mine.

Not meddling while Gray eats is a constant challenge.  I often repeat a concept from Child of Mine as a mantra, “Your job is done once you serve the meal.”  I think this is the change that is making the biggest difference.

Please share any tips you have to encourage good eating habits in children! 

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

CaitlinHTP April 29, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Can you explain the “no bribing” thing a little more? Why shouldn’t you do that? Because bribing seriously works in our house! I will say, “Eat all your broccoli and then you can have chocolate,” and then he will inhale his broccoli. But if I was like, finish your broccoli, he would not. Thoughts?

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CaitlinHTP April 29, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Also I agree the illusion of choices are huge. Just asking “Do you want to eat tofu or broccoli?” and pointing to his two choices on his plate often works wonders. I NEVER ask “Would you like broccoli?” because the answer is always no :)

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Lara April 29, 2014 at 12:51 pm

I get the impression that bribing them to eat is a short term solution, rather than teaching them to be competent eaters for the long run. To use your example, by using the chocolate as a reward, you are reinforcing that broccoli isn’t enjoyable in its own right. The Child of Mine author really argues that children go through a natural process of trial and error when trying foods; first they may just touch it, then they may bring it to their mouths, then they may chew on it and spit it out, and eventually they eat it. This happens over a long period of time while they are learning about food. I think the arguments against bribery in general are that you’re not giving the kid a chance to understand the intrinsic value of doing something–you’re just setting yourself up for a power struggle. This is just my interpretation of the book though ;)

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CaitlinHTP April 29, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Makes sense :) sometimes the only reason I eat broccoli is the promise of chocolate so… LOL thanks for this post. It was helpful!

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Lara April 29, 2014 at 7:29 pm

Ha! I totally get it. People go to work so they can get a paycheck, so that seems like a reflection of real life to me. But in theory I see why it’s not ideal.

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Lara April 29, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Also, keep in mind that this is coming from someone who bribes their kid with the iPhone to brush his teeth every night, so…not saying it’s easy ;)

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lauren May 14, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Haha I love the exchange above. Both views make sense. And there’s always a place for bribery ;)
This makes a lot of sense and I am going to remember it as we get closer to the toddler stage. I am guilty of offering the same things too often. It is easy! Right now, I’m enjoying the fact that my 10mo eats just about anything…he is pickiest about fruit. Reallly? He needs to see me put that diced fruit in my mouth and chew before he’ll even try…

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