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messy toddler eating

Top 10 Mealtime Hacks for Toddlers

Jan 15, 2021

A Guide to Happy Mealtimes

1. Problem: Toddler Hates Coming to the Table
▶︎ Solution: Introduce a Mealtime Routine

Before I had kids, I used to say things like “I won’t be too structured with my kids. I will be chill and just go with the flow.” Like I said, that was before I had kids. I quickly learned that toddlers thrive on routine and our household was much more chill when my toddler followed a schedule and a predictable routine.

  • Provide a consistent mealtime routine so your child knows what will happen next
  • Put on music or a playlist that your child associates with mealtime
  • Give a 5-minute warning that lunch will be starting soon
  • Talk about what you are making for lunch and what it looks and smells like
  • Sing a hand washing song to transition from play time to mealtime. Make it fun! "This is the way we wash our hands." (Tune: here we go round the Mulberry Bush)

2. Problem: The Battle of the Bib
▶︎ Solution: Think Outside the Bib

As a toddler my son Thomas hated his bib…with a raging vengeance. Bib fights would throw off his entire meal. His life’s purpose at mealtimes was to tear off his bib. I tried all of them to no avail. Over the years, I have worked with many kids with sensory processing issues that can’t tolerate the feeling of a bib and find it too overwhelming and distracting.

  • Cloth bibs tend to be better tolerated than plastic crunchy bibs
  • Stay away from bibs that are hard/rigid and dig into your child’s neck or tummy
  • Avoid bibs with crazy wild patterns for kids that are easily distracted
  • Instead of a bib, slip an old t-shirt overtop of your child’s clothes (just as you would with a painting shirt), then take it off after the mealtime
  • Or like I did with Thomas, strip your toddler down to his diaper and encourage messy eating. It’s easy to wipe up a messy chest and tummy after a feeding 

3. Problem: Toddler wants to play not eat!
▶︎ Solution: A food in the hand is worth…trying

A toddler’s main goal in life is to play, play hard, and play long. Playing trumps everything including eating. Given the choice, most toddlers would rather play than eat, which means that when their playtime is interrupted to start a meal, tantrums may ensue.

  • Try offering your child a piece of a preferred food in your child’s hand that you are serving for lunch to help her transition from play to the highchair. I call this a "transition food"
  • As you bring her to the highchair have a preferred food ready on the tray, so your child shifts her attention from play to the food in front of her
  • Avoid leaving your child waiting in the highchair with no food while you prepare lunch as her attention span is short and you may miss the window for eating

4. Problem: Toddler Refuses New Foods
▶︎ Solution: The 75/25 Food Rule

Put yourself in your toddler’s position: If you sat down to a meal and were offered foods that you did not like, would you feel interested in eating? Likely not…you might lose your appetite. You might just opt to pass on the meal.

Try the 75/25 rule of preferred to non-preferred foods:

  • 75% of the foods you are offering should be things that your child likes and can eat successfully
  • 25% are foods that you would like your child to learn to eat in time
  • Remember that repeated exposure to foods helps your child to accept them
  • Offering food that you know your child CAN eat will reduce everyone’s mealtime stress
  • ALWAYS have food on the tray...a toddler's feeding tray should never be empty!
  • Here's a link to my 3-part series on Picky Eating

5. Problem: Toddler wants to get out of his chair!
▶︎ Solution: Offer food in courses

Don’t play all of your cards at once! Toddlers have a very limited attention span and as I said above, shortly after sitting down to eat they are already thinking about how to get back to their life’s purpose – PLAY!

  • Instead of offering all foods at once, offer one food at a time
  • For the first course, start with caloric or nutritionally rich foods that you would like your child to eat the most (e.g., proteins, grains)
  • After a few minutes, if your toddler begins to refuse this food, take it away and bring out the next course! “Ta da! Look we have cheese!”
  • Toddlers will often resume eating and stop trying to escape from their chair when a new food appears in front of them
  • Have 3-4 foods ready to go at the start of the meal and offer them in courses to keep your toddler interested, sitting longer, and eating more volume
  • Practice family meals. Your child will be more interested and engaged if you are eating too!

6. Problem: Which Feeding products are best?
▶︎ Solution: My go-to favourites below

  • Divided bowls are great for keeping foods separated for toddlers
  • Look for fun, colourful feeding equipment to make mealtimes fun!
  • I love the EZ-PZ Mini Mat and often recommend it to my clients
  • The EZ-PZ Mini Bowl is the best suction bowl/mat I’ve ever encountered! It defies science! I wish this was available when my son was little.
  • Offer a smoothie consistency liquid in an open cup for practice at mealtimes. The consistency will flow more slowly to help your child learn to control the liquid
  • Again, the EZ-PZ cups are great for babies and toddlers as they are small and soft
  • Offer child-sized utensils for your toddler to learn to scoop, dip, and self-feed
  • I love the Num-Num pre-spoons and EZ-PZ spoons

7. Problem: My Toddler is Throwing Food
▶︎ Solution: Enter the “All done” bowl

If your toddler loves to throw food to communicate or just watch it splat, try introducing an “all done bowl".

  • Using hand-over-hand assistance, teach your child to put unwanted food into the bowl while saying “all done”
  • Praise your child for putting unwanted food into the “all done” bowl
  • Alternatively, try completely ignoring throwing by removing your attention and eye contact. Your toddler may stop doing this if he's not getting any response from you

8. Problem: Picky eater & not growing well
▶︎ Solution: 3-hour between & 20-minute meals

  • Allow at least 3 hours between feedings for appetite development. This includes milk or food
  • Kids that come to the table hungry will be more engaged in eating and will eat and grow better than those that graze on food/milk throughout the day
  • Limit meals to 20 minutes to reflect your toddler’s attention span
  • Shorter meals will contribute to a more positive relationship with mealtimes
  • To help with behaviours, check out my previous blog on reducing mealtime power struggles

9. Problems: Meltdowns at the end of the meal
▶︎ Solution: Quit while you’re ahead!

Respect your toddler’s feeding cues. Feed him/her the way you would like to be fed.

  • Never force, trick, bribe, or push your child to eat as this will increase refusal behaviours
  • If your child is indicating that hes/she does not want to eat by throwing food, or turning away, then it’s time to end the meal
  • End the meal before your toddler has a meltdown so the meal ends on a happy note
  • You can teach your child to communicate the “all done” or “finished” sign
  • Indicate that the meal is done by saying “all done” and taking the food away

10. Problem: My toddler hates face washing
▶︎ Solution: Make face washing fun…

Kids with sensory processing issues often despise having their face washed. This means that the very last thing they associate with the mealtime is a negative experience. Remember we want mealtimes to be happy and end on a happy note, so your toddler is more eager to come back as a happy customer next time!

  • If your child does not like having his/her face washed, avoid doing this in the highchair, as the highchair should always remain a happy place.
  • Take your child out of the chair and bring him/her to the kitchen sink.
  • Sing a routine-ending song that is similar to your beginning song: “This is the way we wash our face.” (Tune: Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush)
  • Run lukewarm water from the tap and let your child splash in the water
  • Wash your toddler’s face with warm water using your hand instead of a cloth to provide skin-to-skin contact, which is often less invasive than a cloth
  • Alternatively, give your toddler a warm, wet cloth and let him feel in control by washing his own face

If you know of others parents that could benefit from these tips, feel free to share this post by email or on social media.


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