Maintain the Division of Responsibility
Research has shown that young children have a finely tuned ability to regulate their calorie intake, so that they eat and drink the amount that is just right for them. They lose this ability if they are pushed to eat more than they really need, so encourage your toddler to listen to their appetite (“is your tummy empty/hungry or is it full/has it had enough?”). Always let your child decide if and how much they are going to eat from the food you provide at regular meal and snack times.
2. Structure meals and snacks
Offer breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper (if needed) at regular times. That way, your child (and you) will feel secure knowing that the next opportunity to eat is never far away and they will feel confident to stop eating when they have had enough. Try not to give in to requests for extra food and drinks (except water) in between times. Research shows that children who “graze” actually end up eating less over the course of a day than children who eat structured meals and snacks.
3. Make eating social
Eat together as a family and try to make it a relaxed, enjoyable time. Use positive language about food and show them that you enjoy eating a wide variety of foods yourself. Toddlers love to be part of family activities. Let them get up nice and close to the table so they can be part of the action.
4. Get them involved
The more exposure children have to different foods, the more relaxed they will be about trying new foods. Let them help with simple food preparation (e.g. picking up vegetables from the chopping board and putting them in the pot ready to cook, arranging pieces of salad vegetables on a plate) and serve food from the table (e.g. ask them to put a piece of cucumber on your plate) – look for opportunities for them to look at, smell and touch foods.
5. Avoid distractions
In order for children to develop a positive association with eating and the foods themselves, they need to be fully engaged at eating times. Otherwise, they will learn to associate eating with a particular distraction technique.
6. Keep meals short
Toddlers have short attention spans, so keep the length of meal times realistic – 15-20 minutes is usually long enough for a toddler to sit and be engaged at the table. Of course, if they are happy and want to keep eating, it’s okay to stay there longer! At other times, it may be obvious that they are just tired and not hungry, so you might end the meal earlier.
7. Keep offering new foods
It can take up to 20 positive experiences with a new food for a child to become familiar with it/develop a taste for it. Some children are more sensitive to smells, textures and tastes, so for them, it could take even more tries.
8. Be considerate without catering
Aim to serve the same meal for the whole family. This may mean changing the texture for some family members, or adding some extra side dishes for others who are unfamiliar with the particular meal you have made. Be realistic and plan ahead – if you know it is unlikely that some family members won’t eat what you have made, add some side dishes that they do like, so that everyone can fill up without you having to make extra food (this will just set up patterns of behaviour for future meals).
9. Encourage independent feeding and tolerate mess
Set up your eating environment so that your child can make a mess with their food without you feeling stressed. Put a plastic mat under their high chair and dress them in a smock that covers their arms/body. Sometimes, a child may feel overwhelmed by the feeling of a particular food on their hands – you can reassure them by showing them that they can wipe it away with a cloth. Otherwise, try to wait until the end of the meal to clean their hands
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