If you are experiencing mealtime struggles with your toddler, you are not alone. Whether your child has a disability or not, mealtime with toddlers can be stressful. From difficult behaviors and picky eating to restricted diets and swallowing safely, feeding can be a tense time for parents and the child. Check out the tips and tricks below to help make mealtime less stressful and fun for everyone.
1. Establish A Routine
A daily routine is very important for reducing stress as this helps the child know what to expect next, understand what is happening, and what is expected of them. Eating at the same time, in the same spot, and in the same way, each time will help reduce problematic behaviors around mealtime.
Below is an example mealtime routine you can implement in your daily life:
2. Understand Your Role
A great way to reduce stress is to understand that there is a feeding relationship between the child and the caregiver. The child and caregiver have different roles at this time. These roles help children become healthy eaters.
Parents and caregivers are responsible for:
- What is provided: Provide the same food the rest of the family is eating. Offer a variety of flavors, textures, and temperatures to expand exposure: Offer preferred and non-preferred foods.
- When food and drink is offered: Offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks throughout the day at routine meal times.
- Where food is offered: Children eat best when they are seated and supported with minimal to no distractions. Eating is a time to be social with friends and family. Sit and engage together.
Children are responsible for:
- How much to eat: Listen when the child says “I’m full” or “I’m all done.” The body naturally signals when to stop eating. Having a routine will build the internal clock of hunger and feeling full at specific times of the day.
- Whether to eat or not: Feeling hungry naturally motivates us to eat, and a natural reward for eating is feeling full and satisfied. Children will eat well when they know it’s their own choice to eat.
3. New Foods Take Time
It’s classic for children not to like broccoli. Why? It may be a different texture, temperature, or color, and depending on if it’s cooked or raw, a different consistency than what they are used to. Your child may not like the new food right away, and that is okay. Be patient and let the child investigate it on their own. They may need to see, touch, and smell the new food before eating it. Provide the new or less-preferred food many times across different meals as it may take at least 15 exposures to that food before the child accepts it.
How to provide positive experiences with new food:
- Model positive engagement with the food. “Oh my broccoli is warm.” “The crackers make a cool noise when I break them.” “Mmmm, I love the smell of mashed potatoes.”
- Let your child help prepare the meal. This is a great time to explore the food without any expectation to eat it.
- Provide a space they can remove/distance the food appropriately. Often a child will throw food on the floor if they don’t like it. Instead, provide a fun bowl, bucket, or ‘all done’ bin as a place to put the food they don’t like.
4. Mealtime is Family Time
Eating is a very social experience and a big part of any culture. Even if your child is a toddler, you’re a small family, or your child has a g-tube, include them in family mealtimes. This is a great time to model proper mealtime behaviors, positive engagement with food, and learn new eating skills. This is also a bonus opportunity to build language and social skills! Remove distractions, such as music, TV, iPad, and phones, and make mealtime family time.
About the Author
Hannah Schult is a pediatric speech-language pathologist at the NAPA Center in Boston. She has a passion for feeding therapy and helping kids improve their quality of life. When she is not treating, she loves to be outdoors, spend time with her family, and play with her dog, Teddy.
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