Making mealtime fun for your fussy eating toddler

Ryder bowl on head

5 practical tips for creating the right meal-time atmosphere for your fussy eating toddler

In my blog, “Feeding Your Child: Top 10 Tips for Success”, we “set the stage”.  Now, let’s make the scenery even more attractive.  This blog is going to give you 5 practical tips for creating the right meal-time atmosphere.

1: Analyse your child’s eating area. 

Where is your child sitting … exactly?  Is it a place conducive to eating?  Are there background noises or entertainment noises which might distract your child from the meal?  What are you (the feeder) doing?

Sometimes the simplest of changes has a great impact on how a child feels about meal-times.  Toddlers go through a stage of independence at around the age of 12 months, or soon after they start walking. Here are some simple changes that will embrace their independence and exploration with food.

  • Sit your child at the table. If he’s exercising his journey from babyhood to toddlerhood, he will greatly welcome this progression.
  • Change the high chair to a booster seat or the next logical stage. Perhaps it’s time for a toddler table?
  • Turn off the TV. To get a valuable family experience while enjoying a meal, eaters’ eyes should not be glued to flickering colourful imagery.  Meal-times are a great opportunity to promote family growth, development and conversation. TV interferes with these social and learning opportunities.
  • Mum and dad, what are you doing? Unless you’re sitting down and enjoying the meal with the little ones, there’s really no need for you to supervise each mouthful.  You have to trust that your toddler will (eventually if not straight away) enjoy the freedom to get on with eating without your interference, and will only ask to leave the table once he’s had enough. Stay close enough to supervise no dives from the chair, but far enough not to be tempted to coerce your child to eat.
  • Sitting down to a meal with your toddler provides numerous opportunities for him to be exposed to new food. The likeliness of our child trying a food is increased when others eat the same food at the same time. If you’re usually one to eat later when the house is quiet and calm why not have a small portion of your meal with your child earlier on and model how fun it is to eat, bite, pull with our teeth and explore new food.

2:  Change how you present the food.

Serving a dinner-sized plate of food appears large and overwhelming to a new eater.  All of the smells are hitting the senses at once.  This means that child could attribute the wrong smell to a food, mistaking a food he likes for a food he doesn’t.  In addition to confusing the child, this can confuse you as to what his favourite foods are.

I encourage feeding from small bowls like ‘tapas’.  Each meal usually consists of 4-5 servings, each in a bowl of its own.  I’ve found many advantages.  For instance:

  • Each bowl is a much smaller, achievable goal of a big meal.
  • You can balance the child’s nutrition more easily. If your child has had mostly carbohydrates throughout the day, you may choose to offer the protein first as he’s more likely to finish the first two bowls.
  • It’s easier to introduce new foods. I always put the adventure food (usually vegetables) in the first bowl to try when my son is most likely to eat it (less tired, better tempered and most hungry).
  • You can identify favourite foods much more easily as the child won’t be distracted by other food on the plate.
  • You may encourage his independence by allowing him to choose his first bowl of food. This makes him feel like he’s in control.

3:  Celebrate each accomplished stage.

This is easy to do when using the small bowl method.  Each bowl serving finished should be positively acknowledged.  How do we know our son has finished a bowl?  We first hear him clapping, only to turn around and see him putting the bowl on his head!  In our house, it’s a big celebration when he’s finished a bowl and we make a big fuss.  Then I knock on the microwave singing “Knock, knock, knock, what’s in there?  What does the magic microwave have for Ryder now?”

4:  Identify when enough is enough.

If he’s pushing the bowl away and you don’t think he’s had enough, offer the next bowl.  If he’s still refusing that one then you can assume he’s had enough, or too tired to play on.  Don’t keep him there any longer than he needs to be as this will only create negative energy around the feeding time and area.  Tell him he’s a good boy/girl and send him off to the coffee table, or toddler table, with a plate of fruit for dessert.

5:  Get your child involved in preparation.

Where possible, when there’s not too many hot pots on the stove, get your toddler involved in preparation of the food.  Perhaps get him to sit on the floor and mash the potatoes, or stir through the pasta sauce, or help to snap the beans in half.  Again, this encourages food to be fun and allows him to see how food is prepared.  Ask him to identify colours of foods.  Encourage him to taste and smell.  You could even offer him to sprinkle cheese on his pasta.  However, if he doesn’t want any, that’s ok; that’s his independent right!

However you choose to implement these tips is completely your call.  You know your toddler better than anyone.  Just make sure you release all feeding-time friction and go into each meal-time with excitement and careful preparation.  Remember the old saying we heard our own parents say, “Don’t play with your food”?  Well, it’s time to eat your parents’ words – literally!  If we didn’t play with our food then we wouldn’t be able to explore textures and smells without putting it in our mouth first. Think of tasting and spitting as a triumph for willingness to taste rather than a failure.

Just keep in mind that consistency is key!  Remember that any tip(s) you try should be done consistently for 14 days straight.  Also, for this short time, don’t let anyone else feed him unless they follow the routine.

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Enjoy your meal!