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Toddler Mealtime Strategies

Every now and again, I get an email with a title that catches my eye, and I actually open it and read it. (Yes, I am one of those people who have 4,597 unread emails - not kidding - and one of these days I will guiltily click "select all" and "mark as read" because I can't handle it anymore) But I do absolutely look for the important ones.  The email I read yesterday was about Toddler Food Throwing on the What to Expect Web site.

Now, I'm including the above link so you can take a gander yourself - there are some good strategies listed there. And I'm not trying to hate, but it is prompting me to share with you guys our mealtime strategies and how they might be a little different than what the peeps over at What to Expect are suggesting.

(Disclaimer: This is what works for our family and specifically our 21-month old. A younger child under the age of 1 might have different needs. Your kiddo might have feeding issues or weight gain problems. So, I absolutely do understand that out of ALL things parenting, strategies surrounding meal time are NOT "one size fits all.")

This is the look of a child (mine) about to pick up a green bean and toss it on the floor. She loves fresh green beans coated in butter and salt. See the devilish look on her face? Bless her; she is SO my kid.

If you have clicked on the above link to the article I read about Toddler Food Throwing, great! If not, I will share with you the initial thing that I read that didn't jive with OUR mealtime routine. The whole statement about toddlers not misbehaving on purpose... um, do you KNOW our kid? She is lovely, and we of course love her with all of our heart, but she was born pushing our buttons, and Yes.. she absolutely does misbehave on purpose. So, that right there causes our strategies to separate from what this article is suggesting.

A general statement on the feeding aspect of Toddlers and Mealtime: In general, aside from any physical or muscular abnormality or sensory issues, most little angels between the age of 1-2 years of age go through a picky/problem eater phase. I really do think that part of the reason for this comes from your toddler's innate desire for power and control. Read: they have figured out that it drives Mommy and Daddy BATTY that they don't eat their food. Sure, they are also developing their taste preferences. But it would be a mistake to not think that they aren't enjoying your anxiety about WHY THE HECK IS SHE NOT EATING THOSE GREEN BEANS WHEN SHE ATE A CAN OF THEM YESTERDAY?!??!!?

Here are some mealtime strategies we implemented with our toddler right around 14 months, when she went from eating anything and everything we put in front of her to growing little devil horns and throwing food and refusing to eat.

1. Be upfront and consistent with your expectations at mealtime. This is a "wording" thing. Instead of telling your kid what NOT to do and therefore giving him/her ideas of what exactly to do to get under your skin, try telling them what you expect. Instead of "We do NOT throw our food on the floor, that makes Mommy SAD" try "When we sit at the table, we keep our food on our plates." That is one of our expectations. Another expectation of ours is "Utensils are for eating" (the implied being that they are NOT for raking across the table top or banging on the table top). Another one, for us, is "If you don't want it, don't eat it, but it stays on the plate." The big phrase when unwanted behavior comes about is "That's not how we eat, you must be done." Bye-bye plate, exit dinner scene.

2. Remove distractions. Our family believes in sitting together for meal time and all eating together if at all possible. Sometimes someone has to work late, etc. but this is our overall goal. The focus is on food and family. We turn off the TV. We leave our phones elsewhere. No books, etc. The reason for mealtime is to eat and spend time together as a family. Even when the kiddo is 1.5 years old. If we are in a situation where Daddy isn't home yet and hungry monster cannot wait, I will still sit at the table with her while she eats her meal and give her my full attention.

3. Do tell your child how proud you are when they eat their food but don't make it a production. I feel like my approach to this is similar to my approach to Christmas/birthday parties. Once you "go big" you're going to have to keep it up. So, while I totally do tell my daughter that I am so proud of her for eating her meal like a big girl, I don't jump and clap and offer cookies after every bite (there is actually a place and a time for this if your kiddo has more serious feeding issues, but in general, I wouldn't go to that extent). I also wouldn't offer cookies/dessert after every meal or even every dinner as a reward, because then it becomes an expectation. I don't believe cookies or desserts should be expected, but instead I should expect you to eat your meal.

4. Develop a "plan" for undesirable behavior (such as throwing food) and stick to it. I touched on what we do above. This is where me and the What to Expect people really met a fork in the road (pun unintended). It was suggested in the article that throwing food is part of a kiddos exploration and to prep the food area so the floor stays clean by putting newspaper etc on the floor. Um... in my family that would be called "target practice." To me, this says to the little tot "Mommy is a-okay with me throwing my food on the floor because she laid out a nice little newspaper for me to throw the food on." Kiddo exploration - yes absolutely, that is important! But, in my humble opinion, there are ways ASIDE from supporting throwing food on the floor for kiddos to explore and learn about food. In our home, you pretty much get one strike and then you are out. Food gets thrown, we say whatever phrase it might be, pick one: "if you don't want it, don't eat it, but it stays on your plate" or "we keep our food on our plate while we are eating." Food/gauntlet is thrown by child, and immediately we go into the whole "This is not how we eat, you must be done." I typically give ONE chance to not throw food again, or else the plate is taken away and her meal time is over. It really isn't hard for me to do this, because I am a mean, heartless parent. (I'm just kidding!!! It is hard for me to do this sometimes, but it would be harder for me to have a picky eater, so.... I know my kiddo won't starve herself.)

5. Continue to present foods that are pushed away or not eaten. This is a HUGE one for getting through the typical picky eating phase!!! I have seen it time and time again with my speech therapy families where kids have developed a very limited palate based on the foods they preferred during this typical picky phase. During this picky phase, as I mentioned, they are pushing buttons and also truly developing their taste preferences. So, continue to present foods you are 90% sure that they won't eat. Just pair it with foods you know they do like. One of those days, your green-bean-hating-kid will eat a bite of green beans, and he might change his mind about it. But if he is presented green beans once, and it is determined he doesn't like them, and then they aren't presented for another year or so, you better believe he probably won't try them. Just keep presenting foods that are not preferred. I KNOW that mealtime can be a big source of stress, and it is easy to give them chicken nuggets, spaghetti  or hot dogs every night because you know you will have success with these items, but you could be setting yourself up for a picky eater for life.

6. Do not present other options if the initial meal is shunned. (I've been watching too much "Amish Mafia" - "shunned" HA!) Along the lines of the above, in our home, we try our best to all eat variations of the same meal. So, if my husband grills chicken wings, my daughter will eat a less-spicy version of the same meal and eat the same sides as we do. She might have ketchup on her plate as we might not, but in general, our meals all look the same. IF she does not eat what is presented, then tough cookies. I'll let her have her milk and an additional cup of water, or whatever, but she is not getting another meal or even another item added to her plate. She sure isn't getting any cookies. (Totally full disclosure here: if our daughter did a decent job with dinner, but not a good enough job to get cookies or whatever she wanted after dinner, and an hour or so later, my husband makes popcorn or something, he might share some popcorn with her --- but it is a separate activity from meal time and I'm hoping she isn't making a connection. If she is a complete monster at dinner and eats nothing --which does happen rarely-- then she will not get a snack at all that night. But I don't ever withhold milk/water.)

7. Structure your mealtime/Eating happens at the table. Kids like structure; they really, really do. So, have a routine with mealtime. As I mentioned above, we try to sit together at the table as a family with no distractions. But even more simple than this is expectations/structure surrounding where we eat. Meals happen at the table, period. An after dinner snack might occur sitting in her daddy's lap in his lazy boy, but for the most part, food is eaten at the table at a particular time. No grazing all over the house. This also includes (for us) really limiting eating in the carseat. Not only could it be a choking hazard, but to me, it's mindless eating and a distraction. Sometimes in the mornings, I have to grab a banana and eat it in the car, and hell hath no fury like a toddler who isn't getting some of mommy's beloved banana in the car. (One disadvantage to forward-facing car seat is that she can totally see me when I eat in the car, RUDE!)

8. Include your kiddos safely in the meal preparation. We are going to get this learning tower for our daughter so she can hang out in the kitchen and watch what we are doing without us holding her. It does cost a pretty penny, but I have heard nothing but good things about them. Have kiddos help stir or give them their own plastic bowl and spoon to "stir" their own stuff.

9. One final suggestion -- Try not to get too worked up when mealtimes go awry. While it is hard to not fly off the handle when your kid clamps their mouth shut and won't eat, try not to. Give attention to the good stuff, and have an unemotional PLAN for the bad stuff. Kids really do love to get a reaction from their parents, even if it is a loud, yelling, screaming one. We don't want to inadvertently train them to be little toots during dinner by giving attention to the bad things they are doing. Talk to the people who are regularly a part of your mealtimes. Have a concise plan for who/what/when/where if food isn't eaten, food is thrown, whatever. Consistency in how you react is key.

Hope what works for our family gives you some ideas for what to do if mealtime is a challenge for your family.  

Again, I cannot stress enough that if your child has sensory issues, a disability, or issues gaining weight, this might not be the plan for you. This is an approach that works for behavioral typical eating issues with 1-2 year olds, and it might not be the right approach for your family. Or maybe you aren't comfortable with some of the strategies I listed above, and that is okay! I'm just sharing what works with us.

Good luck, and happy eating!!!


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