Picky Eating: Feeding Toddlers – Don’t Get Sucked In

By Jennifer Yoon, RDN/LDN, Pediatric Alliance — St. Clair



The second year of life — The Toddler Years — are when the real feeding fun begins. Though they are more active than in their first year, toddlers have lower energy needs for growth. Their appetite may decline at times, and increase at others. Usually around 18 months, your baby’s “two-ness” begins to show itself. Your toddler will begin to assert his own will and test his limits. She may struggle with separation while trying to discover her sense of self. The toddler has many strong emotions and opinions, and has to learn self control. Much of this drama can play out at the dinner table.

The Division of Feeding Responsibility coined by Ellyn Satter in How to Get Your Child to Eat: But Not Too Much is very important during this time. In this division, parents are responsible for what and when, the child is responsible for how much or whether to eat at all. The Division of Feeding Responsibility acts as a guide to set the reasonable limits toddlers need, while not setting you up for battles you cannot win.

You are responsible for selecting, buying, and preparing meals. The toddler meal at this point may be a modified version of the adult meal. Be sure to offer one liked food, and cut the food up in a way your toddler can manage to feed herself. Allow your toddler to get the food into his mouth however he chooses and accept the mess as a learning process.

One important way to provide limits and structure is in the form of regular meals and snacks 2-3 hours apart — your toddler no longer benefits from ad lib feeding as he did when he was a baby. Allowing your toddler to graze, sip on milk or juice, or have easy access to foods is a mistake. It is common when parents feel their children “just won’t eat” to follow them with snacks and provide eating opportunities on the run. This results in very poor intake at meals, a poor quality diet, and a lack of awareness of hunger and satiety.

Along with timing, parents are in charge of the where and how meals are presented. The family meal is the most positive thing you can do to influence your child to eat well. You cannot make your child eat, but you can expect him to sit for a reasonable amount of time for meals and snacks. You and the other members of the family should sit and enjoy the meal together avoiding any negative attention to what the child chooses to eat or not eat. Expect appropriate behavior at the table.

The child is in charge of how much to eat, and whether to eat at all. Your toddler will quickly figure out eating is something you cannot make them do. Any encroachment on her job of eating may be reacted to as a threat to her autonomy. How a child eats may also be added to this list. Letting them feed as independently as possible, giving them help only when they need it, may be messy, but will result in less battles.

Children move through this period with varying degrees of resistance depending on the temperament of the child and the handling of it by the parent. It’s very important to be prepared to choose your battles. As Ellyn Satter writes, “Only fight battles you can win… you can stop a toddler from doing what you don’t want her to do, but you can’t make her do what you want her to do”. Things go much more smoothly when it is accepted early on that you cannot make them eat, but you can support them by providing a positive environment, nourishing food, and loving and consistent limits and boundaries.


You can read Part 1 of Jennifer Yoon’s ongoing series on Picky Eating here, and Part 2 here.


*** Jennifer Yoon sees patients at the Pediatric Alliance — St. Clair office. For an appointment, please call (412) 221-2121. Read more from Jennifer on The PediaBlog here.