Consider this very common scenario…
My toddler is the pickiest eater! She only eats a handful of foods and some days she eats almost nothing at all! Attempts to get her to try new foods end up in refusal and a frustrating battle.
Does that sound familiar? If you are in this situation (or maybe you know someone that is), you might feel like you have tried lots of different ways to encourage your child to eat, but they resist and refuse! You keep putting the meat or veggies on their plate, just to watch it either be refused, thrown or untouched, over and over again.
This situation can get very tired, worrisome and hard. It might also feel like the situation doesn’t seem to get better over time.
A helpful place to start is to explore parental attitudes and beliefs around eating and feeding children. For example, some parents feel that it is their job to get their child to eat. They may feel responsible when they think their child is not eating well. The parent may start to feel the pressure to provide, and this can lead to pressure on the child to eat. Another parent might really really want their child to eat a particular food because it’s ‘healthy’ or not ever touch that other food because it’s ‘not healthy’. A different parent may believe that their child needs to finish the food on their plate, because that’s what was expected of them as a child. Some parents may believe that their child is being disobedient when food is refused or are displaying bad manners when they throw food or eat with their hands. Some concerns or beliefs might come about from parental pressures, or perhaps family or social networks.
It can be confronting to explore and challenge our belief system. Especially if it somehow might relate to the feeding challenges we’re going through. It can feel like we are doing wrong or that someone is to blame. However, absolutely no one is at fault or to blame. Not parents. Not children.
Taking a moment to consider how our parental attitudes and beliefs influence the toddlers feeding experience may provide a path to part of the solution.
This is with the knowledge that parents are doing their very best.
Let’s understand toddlers a bit better…
The toddler period starts at around 11 – 36 months of age (1). Toddlers are realising that they are separate and are developing a sense of their own abilities. That means they also start having their own ideas around what they want to do. Toddlers can enjoy their new found independence and are not afraid to exercise it, nor do they hold back their assertiveness. Trial and error is the way they learn. They like to repeat a series of actions over and over again. They extend their understanding of cause and effect. The toddler will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ quite decisively. Their young brains and not ready to regulate their feelings and self-control. So when things get frustrating or don’t go their way, they can become overwhelmed and show us how hard their experience was through some sensational toddler aggression or temper tantrums!
In their open exploration, toddlers also may work out that some things are not worth doing again especially if it was really scary, hard, uncomfortable or even painful. They may approach some new things with extreme caution, particularly something like food! Particularly something like eating!
We adults think that eating is so simple. You put the food in your mouth, chew it, swallow it, repeat, done! Right?
It turns out that eating is one of the most complex tasks a human can coordinate.
We use our 5 senses, oral-motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and core stability. Kay Toomey (2) identified 32 ‘Steps to Eating’ for children! It makes sense that for many toddlers, it can take a little while to learn to eat, and learn to eat well.
What does NORMAL toddler eating behaviour look like?
- They need to master using their hands before they can master using utensils
- They use their 5 senses to explore the food – this includes squashing food (running it through their hair, behind their ears and everywhere else!) and working out how it all works
- They may spit food back out and put it back in, repeat!
- They may display facial expressions that might look like they do not like the food – this is almost never the reason
- They prefer to eat food that is familiar
- They may eat a little or a lot or nothing at all (3)
- They might not eat the foods they ate yesterday, but eat it again tomorrow or a few weeks later
- They may approach new foods with caution. And ‘play’ with the food until they are more familiar and ready to put it in their mouth
- They keep moving and don’t sit for very long at all or EVER!
Yes, if your toddler is doing one or all of these things, they are absolutely on track with their development.
If your toddler is doing different things such as: they get extremely overwhelmed and upset if they get messy, or eat a very limited number of foods, or their growth is not tracking, it may that their body’s system may be processing or working differently – again this can be pretty common for children. Understanding what is going on for this child can make all the difference. Understanding leads to learning how to support them through it as best you can. I encourage you to seek some professional support from a practitioner that is experienced in feeding children, you need support.
So how do you get your picky toddlers to actually eat?
These words by Ellyn Satter are spot on:
“The way to get a kid to eat is to not try”.
It makes so much sense. The more pressure a child gets to eat, the harder it is for that child to eat. Simply because the child needs to do things at their own pace and with their own free-will. It’s how they are made. Asking them to push past their comfort, ability or skill will only result in them needing to back away. And they can do this with determination!
You know your toddler best. Start by observing and noticing how your toddler is learning about their world.
Notice what happens when you let them lead the way when they are learning about food.
Notice what thoughts, attitudes and beliefs you might have as you observe them. Are you dreading the mess? Do you worry that your toddler will learn poor table manners? Or are you concerned that are not eating enough? Are you trying to get your child to eat?
Grab a pen and paper. Write down key things you have noticed. How do your beliefs match up with your child’s natural learning method?
Clarify what your ‘job’ is as a parent when it comes to feeding your toddler
Clarify what your toddler’s job is when feeding themselves
This can help:
Ellyn Satter, a renowned dietitian from the US, developed ‘The Division of Responsibility in Feeding’ (4) which describes the feeding roles of the child and the parent. In practice, I see this approach work very well for families, improving relationships with food and each other. Here it is:
The Division of Responsibility for toddlers through adolescents (4)
- The parent is responsible for what, when, where.
- The child is responsible for how much and whether.
Fundamental to parents’ jobs is trusting children to determine how much and whether to eat from what parents provide.
When parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating:
Parents’ feeding jobs (4):
- Choose and prepare the food.
- Provide regular meals and snacks.
- Make eating times pleasant.
- Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
- Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
- Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
- Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.
Children’s eating jobs (4):
- Children will eat.
- They will eat the amount they need.
- They will learn to eat the food their
- They will grow predictably.
- They will learn to behave well at
Working through the feeding relationship you have with your child is a process. If you relate to having beliefs around feeding that are not helpful to your feeding relationship, or you are concerned about your toddler’s feeding development, you need support. Connect with me, Ines Astudillo, paediatric dietitan, to see how I can help.
- Satter, E. 2017. Child Feeding Ages and Stages. Accessed [online] 15/09/2017 https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/child-feeding-ages-and-stages/
- Toomey, K. A. 2010. Steps to Eating. PhD Toomey@starcenter.us
- Satter, E. 1987. How To Get Your Kid to Eat… But Not Too Much. Pg 22. Bull Publishing, U.S.
- Satter, E. 2015. ELLYN SATTER’S DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITY IN FEEDING. http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/