If you're raising a toddler you know how hard mealtimes can be. Whether you feel like your child eats too little or too much, one thing is for sure—eating habits from childhood carry over to adulthood. Registered dietitian Nishta Saxena explains how to handle mealtimes in a way that will benefit you and your little ones in the long run.
You should expect your child's habits to change from one day to the next, or with sleep and situational changes such as daycare or illness. You should also expect to roll through phases of low appetite and high appetite based on growth and activity. Try not to sweat it, as long as your child is growing and developing appropriately.
If your kid doesn't eat enough...
- Don't focus on what or how much your child is eating. Over-focusing on what they're eating will cause stress and anxiety for both parents and children. Instead, talk about something else entirely or sing a song. Keep mealtimes short to 10 to 20 minutes.
- Don't bribe or reward them with dessert or threaten punishment (i.e. no television). Instead, offer “dessert” at the same time as the regular meal and allow them to choose what they put in their body—children need to develop autonomy about this.
- Don't judge how they eat. If they eat with their fingers or they are a messy eater, let them be.
- Be a role model. Eat when you want your kids to eat. The most important tactic you can use to encourage healthy eating in children is to sit with them and eat the same foods they eat.
- Offer a variety of foods in similar size portions and allow your child to choose what they want to eat. Always offer something they like and something that's new.
- Stay positive as a parent at mealtimes as much as possible. Don't give angry responses or gestures—take deep breaths if you have to decrease and maintain positive body language.
- Stay consistent. It can take a child up to 18 exposures to a food at different times to start to develop interest. Keep mealtimes and all foods in regular rotation, even when it feels like your child hasn't responded.
If your child eats too much...
- Don't offer food between meals and avoid drinks other than water and milk. When it's not a mealtime or snack time, gently re-direct your child and don't continuously feed when they ask.
- Don't use screen time as your first distraction. For the same reason we shouldn't use our devices while eating, we should also limit screen time to avoid mindless eating patterns.
- Don't use phrases in relation to their body. Never reference their weight or shape, like “this will make you fat”. Doing so can contribute to the perfect storm of factors for development of an eating disorder.
- Check hydration in your child. Some kids are less included to drink fluids and may be thirsty, not hungry.
- Try 'Action Distraction'. Distract your child away from the thought or space, like the kitchen, and move them to another activity or outside.
- Always validate your child's experience. Your child may actually be wanting your focus and attention, or may be anxious about something, so always validate them. Explain that food isn't being offered at this time, but after you do “x”, you can sit down and eat again.
You should check with a doctor if...
- Your child is eating items other than food (i.e. toys, chalk, paper)
- Your child has developed repeated or worsening patterns, or their eating behaviour changes with other symptoms.
As with anything child related, if you feel overwhelmed or that your child's behaviour or patterns are worrisome in any way, check with your child's doctor and a registered dietitian to get support.