Get Your Toddler to Eat

This column originally ran on the site Modern Parent Online in Spring 2011.

by Liz Rothaus Bertrand

There was a time, not so long ago, that my little guy would eat almost anything. He would gobble down every new veggie and exotic dish placed before him. My husband and I were proud of our baby gourmand.

We’d hear about other parents whose kids refused to eat or who couldn’t sit still during a dinner out, and we’d rejoice in our good fortune. (We’d also quietly congratulate each other on our amazing parenting skills. We knew it must be thanks to us that our baby had developed such a sophisticated palate.)

Then something happened. One day peas were in, the next day they were out. Ditto with potatoes. Zucchini. Beef.

But that’s not all. Somewhere along the line, he picked up the habit off tossing food overboard if he didn’t like what he found on his tray. And those quiet dinners out with baby in tow soon became a dim memory.

Why did our little darling become a dining diva and how did we deal with it?

My best guess is that our baby turned into a toddler. It happened so quickly (just as everyone said it would) and without warning. He, who once happily slurped puree is now only too happy to push his plate away, shake his head and say “NO.”

He may still be wearing diapers but, from his point of view, he’s ready to wear the proverbial pants in the house.

Of course, he’s not ready to be in charge but there’s no doubt he’s developing his own opinions, tastes, and attitudes. An inevitable part of parenthood is that we have to keep adapting. It’s our job to keep him on track but it’s only logical that we’ll need to make some adjustments to our parenting strategies and expectations as he grows.

So, we had to develop some new plays in our parenting playbook. Here are five ways that helped us make meal time a better experience for all three of us, as we transitioned from baby-dom to full-throttle toddler.

Give him a spoon:

At first, all we had to do was wave a spoon under his nose and he’d willingly take a bite. When that stopped working, we brought in the big guns: our sound effects team. My husband handled the zooming airplane sound and I chirped like a doorbell. No doubt this was entertaining stuff but the problem was our little guy kept trying to grab the spoon.  He wanted to feed himself but didn’t yet have the dexterity to do so.

The solution was simple: we gave him a spoon of his own. While he fiddles with it and practices bringing it up to his mouth, we can easily sneak that airplane in for a safe landing.

Sit down together:

Now that he’s become more adept at feeding himself with a spoon (or — let’s be real — using his fingers) it’s tempting to plop our little guy in his seat and let him fend for himself, especially at lunch time. When he’s safely strapped into his seat, it seems like the perfect opportunity to dive into the millions of projects that I never have time to do.

But the truth is he eats so much better when he’s being supervised and encouraged. Whenever possible, my husband and I try to sit down with him. Nobody likes to eat alone (even a toddler who wants to do it all by himself!)

Results: less food on the floor and more in his little buddha belly.

Eat out(side):

Restaurants can be tricky. Picture it: the little guy gets restless and fellow diners are giving us the evil eye. Inevitably, one of us is obliged to race through our meal, while the other takes a walk with the babe and ends up eating left-overs at home. Not much fun for anyone.

But last summer we had a revelation. We discovered that a picnic is the perfect way to eat out with a toddler.

Picnics are inherently finger-food friendly, we can be as loud and as messy as we want, and baby can run around unencumbered. It’s a great way to get out of the house, eat together, and not worry about disturbing anyone else.

Prepare a meal together:

Ok, so obviously a toddler isn’t ready to “Master the Art of French cooking” a la Julia Child but he can still play a part in preparing the meal. Our son loves hanging out in the kitchen and emptying the cabinets of Tupperware bowls, pots and pans. Now I’ve finally found some new ways to channel that enthusiasm by involving him in food prep.

So far, he’s “helped“ me sort green beans, rinse veggies, and shuck corn. For him, it’s a game. He gets to practice pulling, tearing, sorting. For me, it’s a chance to spend some fun time together without worrying about how to distract him with something else while I race around to finish the meal. The best part is that he’s curious to try the new food once it’s on the dinner table.

Ketchup, the great equalizer:

Hey, don’t knock it ‘till you try it. Ketchup has helped us to nourish our little guy when he’s particularly determined not to eat a thing. On those days where he’s refusing foods left and right, we dab a little ketchup on his plate and HALLELUJAH! the kid’s eating like a champ.