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Your child is realizing more and more that they are a separate person from you, one with different opinions. So how do you balance providing nutritious food for toddlers, while giving them choices at mealtime?

 

Giving your toddler some say over three key basics of healthy eating—whether to eat, what to eat from the foods that are served, and how much to eat—develops their sense of being a separate person. Eating, after all, is one of the first big areas of life in which your little one can make some decisions.

 

That doesn’t mean you need to hand over total control of feeding, or give up on nutrition- you still have the responsibility to decide what foods are served, where to eat, and when to eat

 

Often, simply knowing your child, guiding them in the right direction, and modeling healthy eating habits will go a long way. Try these tips to strike the right balance when it comes to giving food choices to your toddler:

 

  • Encourage your toddler to make small food choices, not dictate the menu. You still decide what’s in your kitchen and on the table: more nutritious foods, and little to no junk food or sweets.

  • Set the schedule and place. Have three regular meals and two to three snack times every day at scheduled times, and in a designated area like the kitchen table. The choice you’re giving your child is whether or not to eat at those times. If they’re not hungry, let it go. Giving toddlers choices at mealtime helps them learn to listen to their bodies’ natural hunger cues.

  • Keep serving foods that get a thumbs-down. Let your toddler choose whether to taste it (or not). It can take time (as many as 10 to 15 tries) for a toddler to get used to a new taste or texture. Skip pleading and arguments, just serve a rejected item again next week.

  • Expect toddler pickiness. Nearly all toddlers are finicky to some degree. Toddlers often go on short food jags when they seem stuck on one food or food group. Rather than giving in or getting into a power struggle over what you see as poor choices, continue serving a wide variety of healthy options from each food group, and let your toddler decide what they will eat.

  • Mix old favorites with new flavors. Your toddler can decide whether or not to branch out, while you can be sure they’ll be nourished by the foods you make available. It also helps to mix up different presentations of the same food at different times: steamed carrots, matchstick carrots, pureed carrots.

  • Skip the food negotiations and bribes. Avoid urging (“One more bite”) or bargaining (“Eat three green beans and you get a cookie”). You don’t even need to talk up the merits of spinach. Just present the food and let your toddler decide whether to take a bite without nagging or forcing.

  • Keep portions toddler-size. Offering too much food for toddlers can make food choices overwhelming. Often, just a few tablespoons can be enough. Consider their smaller stomach size.

  • Introduce gradually and have at least one “safe” option. Toddlers can feel overwhelmed if there are too many new foods given at once. Introduce new foods gradually and ensure there is always one food that they are familiar with at each meal.

  • Hand over control of the utensils. By 15 to 18 months, your toddler is ready to manage the fork or spoon (or a combination “spork”) themselves rather than being spoon-fed by you. Yes, it’s messy, but it promotes independence. Eating with fingers is still OK, too.

  • Eat together as a family. It helps for your toddler to see you selecting among lots of different foods, and provides an opportunity for you to model healthy eating habits.

  • Keep a toddler food log. Worried about your toddler’s eating? Try writing down everything they eat for a few days or even a week. When you look at the big picture, you’re likely to see that your little one is eating better than you thought. If not, a record can demonstrate any nutritional concerns at your next visit to the pediatrician.