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Tips and Tricks for Mealtime with Toddlers 

Mar 14th, 2022 | by Hannah Schult

Hannah Schult

March 14th, 2022

If you are experiencing mealtime struggles with your toddler, you are not alone. Whether your child has a disability or not, mealtime with toddlers can be stressful. From difficult behaviors and picky eating, to restricted diets and swallowing safely, feeding can be a tense time for parents and the child. Check out the tips and tricks below to help make mealtime less stressful fun for everyone. 

1. Establish A Routine

A daily routine is very important for reducing stress as this helps the child know what to expect next, understand what is happening, and what is expected of them.  Eating at the same time, in the same spot, and in the same way each time will help reduce problematic behaviors around mealtime. Below is an example mealtime routine you can implement in your daily life: 

General Routine 
G-Tube Routine 

  • Wash hands 
  • Sit in chair 
  • Put on bib 
  • Begin meal 
  • Help clean up 
  • Wash face and hands 
  • Take off bib 
  • Get out of chair 

  • Signal it’s time to eat with verbal language or using your child’s device 
  • Wash hands (in sink or with baby wipes) 
  • Sit in feeding chair at table where others also eat 
  • Provide oral sensory stimulation while you begin the meal (and throughout) 
  • Talk with your child about the meal, feeling hungry and then full 
  • End oral sensory stimulation to signal the meal is done 
  • Move child to another chair/away from the table to signal mealtime is over. 

2. Understand Your Role

A great way to reduce the stress is to understand that there is a feeding relationship between the child and the caregiver. The child and caregiver have different roles at this time. These roles help children become healthy eaters.  

Parents and caregivers are responsible for: 

  • What is provided: Provide the same food the rest of the family is eating. Offer a variety of flavors, textures, temperatures to expand exposure: Offer preferred and non-preferred foods. 
  • When food and drink is offered: Offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks throughout the day at routine meal times.  
  • Where food is offered: Children eat best when they are seated and supported with minimal to no distractions. Eating is a time to be social with friends and family. Sit and engage together. 

Children are responsible for: 

  • How much to eat: Listen when the child says “I’m full” or “I’m all done.” The body naturally signals when to stop eating. Having a routine will build the internal clock of hunger and feeling full at specific times of day.  
  • Whether to eat or not: Feeling hungry naturally motivates us to eat, and a natural reward for eating is feeling full and satisfied. Children will eat well when they know it’s their own choice to eat. 

3. New Foods Take Time

It’s classic for children not to like broccoli. Why? It may be a different texture, temperature, or color, and depending on if it’s cooked or raw, a different consistency than what they are used to. Your child may not like the new food right away, and that is okay. Be patient and let the child investigate it on their own. They may need to see, touch, and smell the new food before eating it. Provide the new or less-preferred food many times across different meals as it may take at least 15 exposures to that food before the child accepts it. 

How to provide positive experiences with new food: 

  • Model positive engagement with the food. “Oh my broccoli is warm.” “The crackers make a cool noise when I break them.” “Mmmm, I love the smell of mashed potatoes.” 
  • Let your child help prepare the meal. This is a great time to explore the food without any expectation to eat it.  
  • Provide a space they can remove/distance the food appropriately. Often a child will throw food on the floor if they don’t like it. Instead, provide a fun bowl, bucket, or ‘all done’ bin as a place to put the food they don’t like. 

4. Mealtime is Family Time

Eating is a very social experience and a big part of any culture. Even if your child is a toddler, you’re a small family, or your child has a g-tube, include them in family mealtimes. This is a great time to model proper mealtime behaviors, positive engagement with food, and learn new eating skills. This is also a bonus opportunity to build language and social skills! Remove distractions, such as music, TV, iPad and phones, and make mealtime family time. 

Find Additional Feeding Resources in the NAPA Blog:

About the Author 

Hannah Schult is a pediatric speech-language pathologist at the NAPA Center in Boston. She has a passion for feeding therapy and helping kids improve their quality of life. When she is not treating, she loves to be outdoors, spend time with her family, and play with her dog, Teddy. 

TAGS: Blogs, Feeding