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Do you ever find yourself in a battle of wills at the meal table with your toddler? Trying to reason or coax your toddler into trying something new to eat? Or taking over feeding because things have gotten a little too messy?

Welcome to the third installment of our Your Child’s Development Series—and it’s all about the toddler.

Toddlers can be picky and erratic with eating.

Toddlerhood can be a time of frustration, struggle and self-doubt for parents, and in a nutshell: a test of your parenting skills. The toddler can rock the world of even the most capable parent (dietitians included).

For the toddler, it is a time of budding independence (separation from you), environmental exploration, limit testing, and understanding self-control.

A toddler’s physical growth continues to be steady, but slows down compared to babyhood.  Because growth is slower, the toddler appetite shifts, becoming voracious one meal and light or maybe non-existent at another.

How well your toddler eats from one meal to the next can be as predictable as the roll of a dice.

And toddler eating can worry parents.

Understanding how the toddler develops, both physically and cognitively (fancy word for brain development), can help you get a grip on why your toddler behaves the way he does, especially around food and eating.

Erik Erikson describes toddlerhood as a time of struggle—a time to figure out who the toddler is as an individual (autonomy) and figure out how to control himself from the feedback he receives from his environment (shame and doubt). And the drive to understand the world is so strong, it can get in the way of eating.

Combine your toddler’s desire for independence, self-control, and exploration with an unpredictable appetite and it’s no wonder your toddler causes you confusion, frustration, and worry!

Some of the most worrisome eating behaviors during toddlerhood are:

  • Refusing or being afraid to try new foods (called neophobia).
  • Only wanting to eat certain foods or getting stuck on one food for a long period of time (food jags).
  • Skipping meals or snacks.

These behaviors are a natural and expected part of toddler development. If you’re not prepared for them, they can test your patience and be the root of negative dynamics at the meal table.

Did you know that how you respond to this normal behavior is more important than the behavior itself?

Here are some things to think about when feeding your toddler:

Don’t be over-invested in how well your child eats at a particular meal or snack, the cumulative intake over the course of a week is what matters most. Great meals are often counteracted with disappointing meals.

Watch your responses when your child eats. Overly praising or obvious disappointment with your child’s eating behavior may not give you the results you want, like eating enough or eating vegetables. It’s best to have a neutral attitude and response when it comes to your child’s eating behavior.

Provide structure to feeding your toddler by keeping meals and snacks on a predictable schedule (about 3 hours in between) and within a reasonable time frame (20-30 minutes per meal and 10-15 minutes per snack).

Don’t sweat the skipped meal. This is just a result of the variable appetite that goes with toddlerhood. Use the meal/snack structure to your advantage. Toddlers need 3 meals and 3 snacks each day—if little Johnny skips his morning snack, he will be able to eat again at lunch (or at the other opportune meals and snacks during the day).

Avoid the traps of feeding the same old food everyday just because your toddler will eat it.  Eventually, this tactic will become an obstacle to getting your toddler to eat a variety of foods in the long run. Continue to offer new foods and old foods, in different combinations, keeping your toddler comfortable (he recognizes the old standbys) but also challenge him (introducing unfamiliar foods) at the same time.

Don’t interfere with your toddler’s eating by taking over the spoon, wiping his face after each bite, or pushing him to drink more than he wants to. Remember, eating is one of the ways you can support the natural progression to independence that your toddler is trying to achieve…interfering is just…interfering.

Start using the Division of Responsibility in Feeding— it provides a clear definition of what your responsibilities are (the what, where and when of feeding) and those of your child (whether and how much to eat). You can read more about this here.

Allow choices, but not too many. Try to keep your choices to two options and keep them within the same food group (bananas or pears; broccoli or peas; pasta or rice). Having a choice is the control toddlers are looking for—and an appropriate place to let them have it. While we do want toddlers to be in control of whether and how much they eat, we don’t want toddlers to be in charge of nutrition and feeding—that’s your job.

Pay attention to tasty meals that provide exposure to most of the food groups. Everyone enjoys food that tastes good–even toddlers!

Check your feeding style –a positive and effective style will go a long way in calming the waters at the meal table.

Toddlerhood doesn’t have to be terrible, especially if you know what to expect with development, and how it will impact eating. Is it possible to relax and enjoy toddlerhood? I think so.

Stay tuned for Your School-Age Child’s Development in our next installment.

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Did you know that child development influences how well your child eats? Picky eating, copying friends, independence, and risky behaviors are all normal behaviors during the course of childhood. Yes, NORMAL behaviors. Children move through these predictable and often frustrating phases as they grow into adulthood.

Yet, many parents find themselves embattled and struggling with their child, particularly with feeding and eating.

Messy eating is a normal part of child development

Why the Struggle and Strife?

Parents are missing out on information about typical childhood development. Not only are they missing this information, child development hasn’t been tied to eating behaviors or highlighted as a driving force behind eating. But child development is an important piece to the puzzle of feeding kids and kids’ eating.

Parents Need to Know What is on the Road Ahead.

And that’s what this series is all about: helping you get a handle on what to expect during each of your child’s developmental phases and most importantly, how it effects your child’s eating, the way you feed him, and his overall well-being.

In this series I will present each stage of child development, starting with infancy, moving through toddlerhood and school-age, and ending with adolescence.  I will move sequentially through the stages, helping you understand how each developmental stage builds upon the next. And I will show you the ties that bind development and eating so that you can figure out the mysteries behind food preferences, desires and behaviors.

School-age children are ready to learn skills in the kitchen

Why Am I Convinced this is Need-to-Know Information for Parents?

Knowledge provides insight. Knowing what to expect and what is normal during each development stage will help you respond to your child in a positive and healthy manner. For example, when you know a tornado is coming, you prepare your home, take cover and weather the storm in a relatively relaxed manner. This knowledge allows you to respond appropriately– this bodes true for feeding your child through the expected storms of childhood development, as well.

Knowledge provides opportunity. Knowing what to expect lets you grasp opportunities to teach and promote your child’s skills. Knowing where your child sits along the spectrum of development will help you decide when it is best to begin and advance cooking skils, how and what to teach about nutrition and allow for independent food choices. And it will also help you be realistic–if you expect your preschooler to bake a cake, you may be frustrated and disappointed. Likewise, if you hold back the school-age child who wants to bake, he may be frustrated with you!

Knowledge minimizes negative interactions. Sometimes, parents and children do struggle. In this series, I will also give you some pearls of wisdom for how to interact with your child in a developmentally-sensitive manner. All in the hopes of equipping you with foresight and knowledge so that you can remain level-headed and calm, and frustration can be minimized for all.

We all know what happens when you’re not prepared or don’t have a sense of what is normal…you may panic!  And panic can lead to rash decisions, knee-jerk reactions and negative interactions with your child. We want to keep things positive, especially around food and eating.

Navigate Nutrition Successfully.

This requires knowing your child’s development and how it is affecting their eating. While some of these normal developmental stages will still feel frustrating at times, it’s how you respond and handle them which is your barometer for success.

I hope you will feel equipped with your new knowledge: able to recognize that some behaviors are simply normal, handle the difficult ones with positivity… and be ready for the next barrage of behaviors.

Stay tuned for the first part of the series: Your Child’s Development: Infancy!

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