I recently had a parent ask me what to do about their toddler barely eating at home. Particularly right now since we are on #coronacation, and going to the grocery store is mayhem (just, ugh, having to don masks, the germophobia, the vanishing of particular items that once used to be bountiful), now is not the time to have to stress over your kid wasting food and not eating what appears on their plate. Like, do they even know how much you had to go through to get that food to cross into your threshold?!
I fully get it, parents. Toddlers can be picky AF and here is the feedback I gave to this mama who reached out:
Q: Is [my child] eating at school? Because at home, they are barely eating anything. We are also struggling to get them to stay seated while we eat. [Child] also does not eat a very big breakfast and getting them to eat breakfast can also be a struggle. I know my child is healthy-looking and not at all on the small side, but this is what we’re struggling with at home and I just want to inquire. Mahalo! (thanks!).
Rest assured that [child] is eating a TON of food at school and having no problems staying seated for meals. We hold the hard limit at school from the start that if the children get up from the table, we assume that they must be done. We tell them that “I see you’re standing up. That must mean you’re “all done”. Then I grab the plate and they watch as we dump their plate of food food directly into the compost bin.
Because we utilize this protocol, it teaches the young children cause and effect. Thus, the children at school rapidly learn that if they want to eat, we aren’t kidding– they absolutely must stay seated. We also offer food nearly round the clock in a Montessori program. So there are many, many opportunities for the children to eat all day long; and we know they will not starve at school by any means if they do not finish a food prep, a snack, or even lunch. Because we will be turning right around to offer yet another opportunity to eat. What the “sit or dump” protocol does mean, though, is that if they want to participate in any particular meal period, they must go along with the rules of how we eat or else the food won’t remain available to them. We always eat sitting at the table in Montessori classrooms, no exceptions unless it’s some kind of event or emergency that prevents us from eating indoors.
Your child also has a huge appetite at school and is devouring a lot of food all day long. So it doesn’t surprise me that by the time they get home, they may not be as hungry for dinner. As for breakfast, it could be possible that they need more time for their appetite to build. Not everyone is an “instant eater” when they wake up, regardless of age. Some people need time before they can manage to stomach breakfast.
Nevertheless, here are some other helpful tips:
~ Always serve foods in the most nutritious to least nutritious order (so we always serve the veggies first, and give them 10 minutes to work on that when they are at their peak hunger. Then we add protein to their plate, then add carbs, and last, serve fruits/ sweets if there is dessert. At school, we bake with the kids once a week and serve about a teaspoon of “dessert” that they helped bake once per week on Fridays.
~ Never immediately serve everything on the plate all at once. That will always overwhelm a toddler. Serving food in courses will also allow the adults to sit and enjoy a leisurely meal because you are essentially pacing the toddler.
~ Use real silverware, and not that dull, flat-ended spork-y piece of crap that people somehow think toddlers should eat with. What you want toddlers to eat with is a cocktail fork and a demitasse or gelato spoon. You can find these at Daiso Japan, Cost Plus World Market, or on Amazon.com. This also helps you save money because you won’t be left with a million chewed-on plastic toddler spoons and forks to throw away once your child learns to eat like a regular human being, LOL. Once they outgrow their miniature silverware, you can use the silverware for their originally intended purpose– pupus (appetizers) and desserts.
~Serve foods in one or two tablespoon-sized servings. And if they eat it all, they can have more. This will significantly help you not waste food.
~ When you make sandwiches, cut the sandwiches in quarters diagonally, and make little triangles. What this does is it creates only one edge with crust on the bread; and it allows the child to eat down to the crust like eating a watermelon wedge down to the rind. Then they can discard the crust if they don’t like it. Which, most of them don’t.
~ You can maintain the same limit at home that we do at school– if they get up from their seat, the food “goes away”– wherever ‘away’ is convenient for you. “Away” can be as simple as pulling it away from the child and toward you, putting the plate up on a nearby counter, back in the fridge, or dumped in compost. At school we cannot re-serve plated food so it must be dumped. Just maintain a clear connection between the act of “standing up”, such that “standing up tells me you’re all done”, and the food going away.
~ When serving less familiar foods, children can be encouraged/ invited to taste a food without having to eat it; which you can demonstrate by smelling the food, licking the food, and then eating a small bite yourself. Perhaps if they taste something they’ll decide they want to eat it; and if they see the adults eating something, they may want to eat it, too. Know that it takes up to twelve “tastes” of a low-preference or unfamiliar food before most toddlers will willingly integrate that new food into their diet.
– Offer “tastings” regularly. I used to do this with a former classroom on a regular basis. I would recruit families to bring an unfamiliar produce once a week, and predictably bust out some new variety of fruit or vegetable during class, talk about it, let them touch it, watch me wash and cut it up, and then we all tasted it together. If you visit farmer’s markets, farmers markets are a great way to taste lots of less familiar foods.
~ If time permits for meal prep, let the child help you prepare the food by doing any small part that includes them. Maybe they get to sprinkle a pinch of cheese over the salad. Maybe they’re interested in grating the cheese. Maybe they’re capable of chopping raw veggie with a crinkle chopper, or helping you to wash the rice. Maybe they help you collect cherry tomatoes from the garden, or even wash off the lettuce. There are many, many food prep tasks a toddler can learn to do. And some toddlers get really good at food prep tasks. Anything that gets their hands on preparing and exploring the food gets them more interested in eating it.
~ Observe and heed your toddler’s eating communications. Sometimes “picky” eating is a toddler’s way of saying “I’m over this food”. Have you been serving them the same foods for an extended period of time? A lot of parents don’t realize they’ve been serving their child the exact. same. food. for no joke, months; without paying attention and responding accordingly when their child has decided to stop eating that food. Like, the child stopped eating mac and cheese last week. But mac and cheese is still coming into class every day for lunch in their lunchbox because the adult is in a habit rather than responding to your child’s cues.
It can help some families to write out a menu for yourself to ensure that you are in fact mixing up the offerings for your child. A menu is also a great way to track what foods your child consumes in case any allergies or reactions ever occur, or to cue you into any really narrow eating patterns your child displays should your pediatrician ever feel concerned about your child’s diet or size. Toddlers do go through phases of wanting to eat the same thing aaaaaall the time and only that thing, seemingly forever. And then one day ::poof:: they’re suddenly “over it” and don’t want to eat that particular food anymore.
~ Toddlers need “consistent, occasionally rotated variety”. This may sound like an oxymoron but that’s how toddlers generally tend to get down nutritionally. For example, at many schools I have worked at where we provided the school lunch, we generally kept the same lunch menu for a third to half the year (same selection of 5 meals M-F). And then we would change it every four or 6 months, and stick to that menu for another series of months. Salad or other vegetables were always on the menu.
~ keep grab-and-eat healthy foods within your child’s reach. That way, they can munch on healthy foods whenever they’re hungry and you can feel a little more relaxation around their nutritional intake. For example, you can keep portions of fresh fruits and veggies you know they like on the lowest shelf of the fridge where they can essentially help themselves whenever they say they’re hungry. Like, if toddlers wanna eat cucumber slices, or grab some apple wedges from the fridge, who’s complaining, yenno? One blogger commented how her mom would always say when they were hungry, (in an Australian accent) “Kids, this house full of fruit!”
~Make sure all toddler foods are chopped in child-safe ways. Anything small and spherical or cylindrical needs to be diced out of its circular, choke-able shape. Circular-shaped, non-meltable, non-smooshy foods are choking hazards for toddlers. So all raw baby carrots, hotdogs, sausages, and even string cheese needs to be sliced in half lengthwise or quartered lengthwise. All grapes need to be sliced in half or quartered. Blueberries are generally fine whole. Cherry tomatoes may or may not need to be diced depending how soft they are.
~ Consider how the food is visually presented, because toddlers do tend to be “picky” about too many textures mixed together. This is not to say that you need to serve all their food on compartmentalized dishware– I in fact do not recommend that, as it creates even more pickiness and because compartmentalized plates can be a pain to wash (says the guide who once led a 26 toddler class where they all ate lunch off of compartmentalized plates we had to hand wash).
Sometimes toddlers can eat better with deconstructed or separately served ingredients. For example, they may not always want the red sauce pre-mixed into their pasta. But if you ask “do you want the sauce on top?” they’ll say “yes” and eat it. Or if you say “do you want the cream cheese on the side?” they’ll eat the carb the cream cheese belonged on. If you observe that they consistently abandon the “carrier food” and only lick off the topping, you may need to hold the limit that that particularly food needs to get bitten, by modeling how you eat it and by saying something like, “take bites please” or “show me how you bite your bagel”.
If you serve plain rice, and mixed veggies on the side, and some diced chicken, it’s probable that they’ll eat more of everything. But if you serve fried rice (where it’s all mixed together) they might reject the whole entree. Sandwiches are sometimes best eaten deconstructed, unless it’s PB& J. For peanut butter and jelly, I always insist that they “keep the breads together”. I have learned a lot of these tips over years of teaching; so I may be leaving out a few other critical strategies that don’t currently come to mind!
~ Whenever you serve the child food pouches, ALWAYS squeeze them out into a dish so the child sees the color and texture of the food within the pouch. This can really curtail some picky eating habits. I once had this little girl in my class who used to refuse to eat unless she got to suck on a pouch. I nipped that in the bud real fast for our entire classroom, not just for her. Originally her parents had a fit about my decision (I’ve worked at a lot of Montess-sorta schools); but it made a night-and-day difference. The child also has to work on feeding themselves neatly with a spoon when you plate the pouches, and it paces their eating so that they don’t suck down a bunch of sugar causing a spike in their insulin levels.
– I’m not a nutritionist. But if you feel like your child’s protein or veggie intake is lower than you’d prefer, I always recommend “the Sneaky Chef”, and veggie/ protein-filled smoothies as a daily “snack”. It need not be large– even a 4oz smoothie on the way home from school or right after school could be enough of a nutritional boost. I also like to load homemade meatballs with food-processed veggies, sneak produce into baked breads (banana bread, zucchini bread) and even puree spinach into pancake batter. Two other food idea sources I love are BabyFoode.com and Healthy Baby Hawaii.
Hope this helps! Feel free to ask any more questions you may have by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org !