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Feeding Your Independent Toddler

When it comes to raising your toddler, you might notice that they’ve started to develop a bit of an independent streak, especially when it comes to meal time! In our earlier blog post, we offered tips for introducing solid foods at 6 months. By 12 months, the older baby has grown accustomed to a wide array of foods and is becoming increasingly more competent in feeding herself. He has begun to slowly wean from bottle/breastmilk as he shows more interest in table food. She may even be drinking from a cup instead of a bottle, or at least beginning that transition. This blog post is for those who are embarking on this new feeding journey with a child that is between 12-36 months old.

Remember, Ellyn Satter developed a great feeding philosophy (my personal favorite) that says parents are responsible for the what, where, and when of feeding; children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating. Problems occur when parents take over this division of responsibility and try to force their child to eat certain types or amounts of food, or do not provide regular, reliable, or appropriate (healthy) food options. Toddlerhood is a unique  developmental period when they are trying to demonstrate that they are separate from you as parents, yet still require, and desire reassurance and support. Additionally, toddlers will begin to acquire strong likes and dislikes- evaluating their ability to control and test their limits. Keep in mind that this is actually a good thing (although sometimes frustrating) as it’s essential to them developing autonomy.

Offering structure and limits is crucial to developing a healthy feeding relationship, but this is a delicate balance – you cannot allow your child to have full control and yet you cannot try to control your child. One way to balance out the power struggles is that as parents, we must establish the structure of regular meals, eating at the family table, and snacks (the what, where and when of eating) and WITHIN those limits, the toddler chooses how much to eat and whether to eat at all. This can be frustrating because toddler brains are skeptical of all new things, which means they will not automatically like new food (not to mention they are erratic and will change their mind frequently, and let’s not forgot that toddlers are opinionated)!

We know that this stage comes with its joys and challenges, so we’ve developed the tips below to help you successfully get through the stage of feeding your toddler:

  • Have 3 meals a day with snacks in between.
  • YOU choose the menu – don’t cater, but do  choose food that will help your toddler eat well:
    • Soft moist easy to chew
    • Pair new food or disliked food with food you know she generally likes
    • Make modifications to “liked food” gradually. Ex: add cauliflower/broccoli to spaghetti sauce if your child is a pasta fan.
    • Always offer a vegetable. She may not eat it at first, but send the message that vegetables are a regular part of everyones diet
  • Include your child in prep for meals within reason, and always feed your toddler at the family table at the same time as other family members.
  • Make mealtime enjoyable, but don’t make your toddler the focus of attention. Meals are family time, and your child is learning socially acceptable patterns of family interaction that includes everyone cooperating.
  • Let your child choose the food she wants on her plate (from the menu you have prepared).
  • Let him feel, mash, smell and explore his food.
  • Do not entice/bribe/reward her.
  • Your toddler should not be having any added sugar in their diet.
  • Focus on real, non-processed food and food that comes from plants (we will offer more on this whole food, plant-based way of feeding in future blogs).
  • Stay away from power struggles – your child will develop an unhealthy feeding attitude.

IF you feel overwhelmed, if struggles are prolonged or continuous, or if you are not enjoying feeding your child most of the time, talk with your child’s physician. As always, our team is here to help and we want you to enjoy each phase of raising (and feeding!) your child.