Toddlerhood is the time when children transition into participants in family meals; they start eating family foods - even if they are modified or deconstructed. And, as Ellyn Satter so eloquently describes, infants eat rather enthusiastically, but toddlers can be cautious, erratic, picky, and fickle.1 In fact, the most predictable thing about toddler eating is that it is unpredictable. Variations in appetite will occur and while there will be days when your toddler only wants to lick, taste, or nibble, there will be other days when the volume of food consumed is unfathomable. This process of learning to self-regulate food and beverage intake is important, so it is imperative that parents not try to coerce a toddler into eating more or less. Rather, trust that your toddler knows how much to consume at each eating opportunity.
The parent-child feeding relationship will be strengthened if you can follow DOR and avoid some common pitfalls. Specifically, when you’re looking to follow the principles of DOR, keep in mind that your job as the parent is to choose what, when, and where to eat, and your toddler’s job is to choose how much to eat and whether to eat. Successful toddler mealtimes require us all to stick to our jobs, without overreaching into the other person’s job. Parents choose and prepare the food, provide regular meals and snacks, demonstrate how to behave at family mealtimes, make mealtimes pleasant, act considerately of the toddler’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes, and not let toddlers have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times. And believe it or not, if you provide this leadership, structure and trust, your toddler will eat: he will eat the amount he needs, he will learn to eat the food his parents eat, he will grow, and he will learn to behave appropriately at mealtimes.1
Trouble rises when we, as parents and caregivers, become anxious that our toddler isn’t responding to mealtimes the way we want him to. When this happens, it’s tempting to resort to some common feeding mistakes, including limiting foods to only accepted foods (chicken nuggets and mac n cheese, am I right?), playing games or offering distractions to get a toddler to eat, keeping a toddler at the table when he shows that he is done (because we think that this will get him to eat more), short order cooking, grazing, waiting to feed the toddler until he tells you he is hungry, and using food for emotional reasons.1
In short, the best way to encourage a life-long healthy relationship with food is to trust your toddler to listen to his body, rather than your anxiety. If you can do that – if you can stick to your job and trust your toddler to stick to his – over time, you’ll see that mealtime relationship grow into exactly what you imagine it can be.
Lisa Grentz, MS, RD, CD, Lead Dietitian
1The Ellyn Satter Institute. (2019). Retrieved May 23, 2019 at https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org./how-to-feed/child-feeding-ages-and-stages/