child feeding

Power over Picky Eating, Understanding the Steps to Eating

Why won’t my child eat vegetables or meat? The challenges of picky eating can easily leave you wondering if there is a secret potion or magic wand that successful parents have.

There is no magic, but you can adopt an approach that will pretty much give you Merlin status overnight. What is it, you ask? It’s play! But not just getting messy with food.

Play that is strategically targeted at helping your child move up the steps to feeding and overcome picky eating.

Before we talk about how to play, we must first understand the steps to feeding. The steps to feeding are essential to understanding why your child resists trying new foods.


Why do the steps to Eating matter?

You probably think that eating (or feeding) is the chewing and swallowing food. This is the finish line. The steps to eating are part of journey needed to successfully try new foods.

While some children leap up the steps to feeding, this is often not the case. For specific foods (yes, meat and vegetables), the steps to feeding may be taken much more slowly, with movement up and down as your child learns to accept the new food.

For some children, the sensory experience of eating including texture, taste and visual appearance of food require careful attention to these steps.

Isn’t exposure to new foods the key step?

You’ve probably heard the statement that it will take your child 10-20 exposures to a food before she will try it (or eat it). The concept of exposure is important, as a child can’t learn to like a food that isn’t offered.  However, simply focusing on exposure doesn’t tell the whole story. The key effect of exposure is helping your child move up the steps to feeding.

The Steps to Eating Explained

Eating is much more than chewing and swallowing. It involves physical skills, nerves and sensory experiences. When we take a moment and understand the journey involved in developing feeding skills, we can better help our child succeed. 

Tolerates – The steps to eating begins when your child accepts the food in her environment. This means that the food can be placed on the table, on place mat near plate, and eventually on her plate.

When you place a food on your child’s plate and she hasn’t yet reached comfort with this food, you immediately see the result which can be crying, throwing the food or shoving the plate on floor.

Interacts – The next major step toward feeding is interacting with a food. This includes using another object (usually a food or utensil) to touch a food.

Assisting with serving or preparing foods is an example. Note that this step doesn’t include touching a food with her fingers or hands. It is necessary to first become comfortable interacting at a distance (using another object).

Touch/Smell – Using a hand or finger to touch or smell food from a utensil or plate. It may also be touching the food a part of the body (not hands).

Having a physical interaction with the food requires a significant level or comfort interacting with the food.

Taste – Food begins to interact with the mouth and may include licking or touching it to the teeth. A bite may be taken and then spit out. 

This step may result in steps back down, as a child may be surprised by the sensory experience. A decreased tolerance to the food or comfort interacting may be occur.

Eating – The final step includes biting, chewing and swallowing pieces of the food independently.  This step may be achieved transiently with up and down movement for the same food.

It is normal for children to have variable acceptance of a food even once they have started eating it.

Using the Steps to Feeding                                                  

When feeding your child, you should be constantly evaluating her position on the steps for each food. This is particularly important for new foods or foods that are typically less tolerated, such as meat or vegetables.

By watching your child’s response, you can determine where she is on the steps to eating and ensure that you are not creating pressure (and causing resistance) with your approach.

What Does Play Have to Do with Eating?

Play is the language your young child understands best. She is curious about the world around her and has a blossoming sense of imagination.

Eating and feeding through the eyes of a child is an extension of play. For parents, the goal is eating. This disconnect can create what is often described as picky eating behaviors.

Play allows you to engage your child where she is on the steps to feeding. By leveraging natural curiosity and using food as part of play scheme, you can move her up the steps. It is a dance with you keenly evaluating her comfort level and engagement with the play scheme.

It is important to remember that food play doesn’t have to be a food fight or even especially messy. Food play leverages curiosity to reduce resistance to a new food and move your child up the steps to eating.

Food Play Example

In this video, you will see an example of using food play to move up the steps to feeding.

This play scheme centers around sweet potato soup, a new and non-preferred food. It is made with curry, cinnamon and has very bright orange color. Expecting a child to take a bite of a new and unfamiliar food is unrealistic and would likely result in both resistance and very little success.


Step 1: Offered carrot sticks (a preferred food) while finishing heating the soup.

Step 2: Initiated the play scheme. Started using a carrot stick as a paintbrush to draw letters on a plate. He joined in and started playing a favorite game that is usually done with his crayons. This familiar activity reduced his apprehension about the new food.

Note that in this video, he is not comfortable with the food yet. He wasn’t interested in sitting in his seat and is approaching the play from a distance. Also, note the reaction when he realizes that some soup is on his shirt. This moved him from interacts to touches on the steps to eating, and you can see he was uncomfortable with this jump. I offered some reassurance and let him know we would wipe it off.

Step 2: Brought pasta pieces (a preferred food) to table. Transitioned to play scheme that involved trying to hide the pasta pieces. This very simple game was highly effective, and you can see how much more comfortable he now is with the food and is sitting comfortably in his chair. The food is close enough he is getting to smell the soup.

This play scheme didn’t result in a bite being taken of the soup, however, he successfully moved up the steps to feeding from tolerating all the way to touch and smell. For the first time exposed to the food, this is significant progress.

With subsequent exposures and careful attention to his response and position on steps, he will successfully try this food.

Picky Eating and the Power of Play

Using play eliminates the need to bribe, reward or pressure your child to try the food. Play leverages natural curiosity and is developmentally appropriate.

Exposing your child to new foods using play schemes that are tailored to their current position on the steps to eating is highly effective. This approach to helping picky eaters is called play-based feeding therapy.

A pediatric dietitian with advanced skills in creating and implementing play schemes can help support you in successfully implementing this approach.


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Feeding Schedule for Toddler - Nutrition Guide

A feeding schedule for your toddler is essential. If you’re struggling to figure out when and what to feed, this article will provide you with the basics of toddler nutrition and contains a sample toddler feeding schedule and meal plan. 

A feeding schedule helps your toddler eat better. Children that graze throughout the day have a higher incidence of picky eating. Taking the time to develop a feeding plan for your toddler is an excellent decision.

How Many Meals a Day Should a Toddler Have?

Most toddlers eat 3 meals and 1-2 snacks per day. It is important to remember that the incredible growth experienced in the first 2 years of life starts to slow down. You will likely notice that your toddler’s appetite may be variable and matched to this new pattern of growth. 

Intake at meals will vary from day-to-day and you may find that your toddler is hungrier at a certain time of the day or associated with a growth spurt. Don’t pressure or encourage your toddler to eat. Your feeding schedule will provide plenty of opportunity for your toddler to meet his nutrition requirements.  As a parent, it is your job to provide the food and your toddler will decide if he will eat. 

Avoid the common mistake of offering your toddler an extra snack after a meal that you feel he didn’t eat well at. This approach can contribute to picky eating behaviors. It can also make it more difficult for your child to develop an ability to recognize and respond to hunger and satiety cues. 

If your child has already settled into a frequent snacking or grazing routine, establishing a routine for meals and snacks is essential. 

How Many Snacks Should a Toddler Have Per Day?

Most toddlers need 1-2 snacks per day. It is not uncommon for younger toddlers to eat 3 snacks per day. Additionally, if your child is currently a frequent grazer, you may need to offer 3 snacks per day during the transition to a more consistent snack routine.

Snacks serve to supplement meals, not to replace what wasn’t eaten at a meal. Your snack schedule should be consistent and provide enough of a gap before the next meal that your child will have a good appetite for the meal. A sample feeding schedule is provided in this article.     

Portion Sizes for Toddlers

It is easy to serve more food than our toddler can eat. It can be very overwhelming for a toddler to have huge portions of food on his plate. A general rule of thumb is to serve 1 tablespoon per year of age (up to age 10).

While 2 tablespoons of a food may look like a very small portion to you, remember that your 2 year old has a much smaller stomach. If your toddler is still hungry after eating the initial portion, you can always offer more.

Letting Toddler Serve Own Food

It may seem like a disaster waiting to happen and a recipe for a messy meal, but allowing your toddler to serve his own food is a best practice. In addition to giving your child a chance to develop fine motor skills, it allows your child to be exposed to new foods.

Typically with family-style meals, each person takes a portion of each food offered. For your toddler, you will likely need to offer some assistance with the serving utensil, but allow your child the space to learn new skills.   

It is likely that your toddler may not be excited about each of the food served at a meal. Stay calm and communicate that he doesn’t have to eat it.   Remember that trying new foods takes many exposures. By interacting with the food from a visual and smell perspective is helping your child to develop the skills to try the food in the future. 

Sample Toddler Feeding Schedule

A feeding schedule for a toddler will typically include 3 meals and 2 snacks per day. A bedtime snack is optional and may be necessary for some children. 

The table below shows a sample feeding schedule for a toddler.

toddler feeding schedule.png


Sample Toddler Meal Plan

The foods your family eats will likely be different, but this sample, one-day menu shows food groups and serving sizes for your toddler. Below the sample menu, you will find a list of food groups and serving sizes.

toddler sample menu.png

Recommended Servings for Toddler Meals

Recommended servings are based on a 1,000- to 1,400-calorie food plan. A toddler's needs will vary depending on age and activity level. To create an individual plan for your toddler, log on to, click on "Daily Food Plans," then choose the age of your toddler.


Dairy: 2 cups per day; be sure to choose lower fat selections.

Count as 1 cup:

1 cup (8 ounces) 1% or skim milk

1 cup low-fat yogurt

2 cups low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese

1½ cups low-fat or fat-free ice cream

1½ ounces of low-fat hard cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, or Parmesan)

⅓ cup shredded cheese

1 cup pudding (made with milk)

1 cup of calcium-fortified soy milk


Protein Foods: 2- to 4-ounce equivalents (or the amount of a food that has a similar nutrition value as 4 ounces of meat).

Count as 1-ounce equivalent:

1 ounce lean meat, fish or poultry

1 egg

1 slice lunch meat

1 tablespoon peanut butter

¼ cup cooked kidney, pinto or garbanzo beans


Fruits: 1–1.5 cups

Count as 1 cup:

1 medium banana or orange

1 small apple

1 cup canned fruit

½ cup dried fruit


Vegetables: 1–1.5 cups

Count as 1 cup:

1 cup raw vegetables

1 cup cooked vegetables

2 cups raw, leafy vegetables


Grains: 3- to 5-ounce equivalents (or the amount of a food that has a similar nutrition value as 3–5 ounces of a grain).

Count as 1-ounce equivalent:

1 slice bread

1 cup ready-to-eat cereal

½ cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta

1 "mini" bagel

1 small tortilla, 6 inches in diameter

1 pancake, 4½ inches in diameter


How Do You Feed a Picky Toddler?

If your toddler seems disinterested in eating the foods you’re serving, stay persistent. A toddler’s appetite is fickle and often will take 10 or more offering of a food before it will be accepted. Avoid pressuring your toddler to eat and utilize age-appropriate strategies to help your child.

Most importantly, remember that your responsibility is to offer foods and allow your child to choose which of the foods you’ve offered will be eaten (if any). Keep committed to your feeding schedule and resist the temptation to offer an extra snack or fall into a grazing pattern of eating.


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Toddler Meal Ideas

Are you constantly searching for toddler meal ideas? Do you struggle to find foods and recipes that your toddler will eat? 

I have an important truth bomb to drop here. If you regularly prepare a special meal or serve foods that are different from what you eat, you are setting up a future that involves preparing two different meals. 

Your picky toddler will not wake up one day and decide that he prefers the regular chicken you make over the special breaded chicken pieces you prepare for his meal. 

Right now, you can be teaching your child how to enjoy the foods YOU eat! Feeding a toddler doesn’t require special foods or recipes. If you are skeptical and sure that this approach isn’t going to work for your picky eater, read on.   

This article shows you how to create toddler friendly meals from the foods you like to prepare and eat. You will be able to end the time-consuming searching for toddler meal ideas and simplify mealtimes.

My other articles on feeding children offer even more ideas and resources to help you feed with confidence.

Building Blocks of Toddler Meals

Your active, growing toddler needs nutrient dense foods. The foods that meet his nutritional requirements are nearly identical to the foods you need, too. It isn’t necessary to serve special foods or recipes for your toddler. While you may find that you need to make small adjustments to your meal plan to accommodate your toddler’s feeding skills, remember that you are teaching your child how to eat the foods you enjoy, not serving the foods you think he wants or likes to eat.

In general, aim to serve 1 tablespoon per year of age for each of the foods at a meal. It’s easy to overwhelm your little one with more food than he can eat. 

By keeping portion sizes age-appropriate, you will be setting your child up for success and be more able to recognize hunger and satiety cues. 

Include a protein such as eggs, beans, tofu, meat, fish or poultry. Dairy products such as milk and yogurt are also a great source of protein, but are low in iron, a key nutrient for toddlers.

Calcium rich foods such as dairy products, beans or fortified plant-based foods such as tofu should be offered at meals and most snacks. Include a fruit or vegetable (or both) at meals as well as whole grains.

Be sure to include healthy sources of fat such as nut or seed butters, avocado or plant oils.  Egg yolks are also a source of fat for your toddler. Fat offers a concentrated source of energy for your toddler and helps to promote fullness.

As adults, we should be aiming for 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, so offering fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks helps you meet your requirements and gives your toddler plenty of opportunities to be exposed to a wide variety of options as well. Keep your child’s skills in mind and serve pieces that are easy to pick up or eat with utensils. Your toddler needs practice with feeding skills but can become frustrated if foods are difficult to eat. Keep a balance of skill building and easy to eat foods.

Choose Recipes that Can Be Deconstructed – Toddler Meal Ideas

An easy way to find toddler meal ideas is to choose recipes that can be deconstructed, and various elements served separately. This might mean serving pasta separate from the sauce and meatballs or serving the ingredients for tacos separately. Help you toddler explore various foods by playing games without pressure to eat the food.

It may take many times of offering a food or combination of foods before your child decides to try a taste. 

Playing with food, touching and smelling it are all necessary steps on the journey to trying new foods. 

Toddler Meal Ideas - Include an Anchor Food

A toddler palate can feel limiting when planning meals for your family.  Including an anchor food at meals will allow you to prepare a wide range of foods, but still offer foods that are accepted by your toddler. An anchor food is a food that your child easily accepts.  This might be bread, pasta, rice, fruits or crackers. When you are serving a new food or one that is less preferred, including an anchor food will provide your toddler with a food that he can “fill-up” and prevent you from worrying about if he is hungry or has eaten enough. 

Summary for Toddler Meal Ideas

The search for toddler meal ideas can start you on a path that leads to preparing a second meal for your child. However, remember that your real goal is to teach your child to enjoy the foods you eat. 

Each culture and family has a different tradition when it comes to food as well as flavor profiles. By taking a feeding approach that is aimed not at serving what your toddler seems to like eating, but instead is focused on helping him eat the foods enjoyed by your family, will help create a positive and low stress mealtime environment.

Understanding the building blocks of a toddler meal and choosing recipes that can be easily deconstructed are valuable for successful meal planning. Including an anchor food with meals allows you to expose your child to a wide range of foods.


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Is Snacking Making Your Child Picky? 5 Steps to Implement a Schedule

Your child eats frequent snacks or seems to prefer to eat throughout the day and not at meals.  It is common for parents to let children graze between meals.  It is even more likely when a child is a highly selective eater.

Snacks are an important part of a child’s diet but can also create meal time difficulties when an unstructured approach is taken. A child that isn’t hungry at a meal or knows that a snack will be available soon after a meal may lack interest or eat very little.

While this may seem to give a poor eater more opportunities to meet their nutritional requirements, it hinders your child from responding to his internal hunger and satiety cues.  In order to be adequately hungry at meals, your child needs a feeding schedule.

The step-by-step approach described will equip you with a plan and confidence to implement a meal and snack schedule.

food arranged on plate as clock for picky eater meal

The Truth About Grazing

A common reason why parents allow frequent snacks between meals is because their child doesn’t eat well at meals.  It is a natural reaction to be concerned that your child isn’t eating enough and offer snacks to provide a chance to make up what was missed at the prior meal. 

However, this approach creates a situation where your child isn’t hungry at meals.  It also makes it more difficult to ensure that intake of key nutrients are met.  Meals often include the most nutrient dense food options each day.  Remembers, snacks serve to supplement meals, not to replace what wasn’t eaten at a meal. 

Establishing a Snack Schedule

The number of snacks that a child needs depends on their age, but in general toddlers need 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day.  Older children need 3 meals and 2 snacks.

If your child currently eats frequent snacks or is grazing, you can use this stepwise approach to transition to a structured snack schedule. You will find that appetite at meals will improve and you will have more quality time to sit down and eat with your child.  This gives you the opportunity to model healthy food choices.  It also gives your child the needed experience with recognizing and responding to hunger and satiety.

Step 1: Create a Snack Schedule

If you don’t have a structured schedule for when your child eats snacks in relation to meals, this is the first step in the transition.  How to make the transition will be discussed in step 4. 

Mealtimes should be consistent, so your child’s snacks can be planned between meals. If your meal times are currently highly variable, you will need to plan the times for these as well.  Choose a snack time that is no less than 90 minutes before the meal to ensure adequate appetite for meals.  Remember that snacks serve to supplement meals, not replace them.  

It is best to write down your schedule and post it in the kitchen and keep a copy handy in your purse or wallet.  You will likely need to reference it, take notes and make updates as you make the transition.  It may be necessary to move the snack times by up to 30 minutes based on your individual child’s needs.

Step 2. Explain the Change and Involve Caregivers/Family Members

If your child is old enough, be sure to sit down and have a conversation, share the new schedule and tell him about the change.  Answer questions and provide reassurance that he will have plenty of opportunities to eat and that the foods you’re serving aren’t changing, you’re just going to eat at specific times.

If there are other people that feel your child, be sure that you have a conversation and clearly explain the schedule so they can support your efforts.  Consistency is important and will make the transition easier.


Step 3: Make Just One Change at a Time

If you are implementing structured snacks as part of an overall revamp including types of food you serve, consider making each change separately.  Too much change can be hard for your child (and you) to manage.  By first implementing the change to structured snacks, you are creating an ideal environment for your goal of offering more nutritious foods at snacks and meals.  Your child will be arriving to meals and snacks with more appetite which is essential for meal time success.


Step 4: Make the Transition Gradual

For many families, a gradual transition is better accepted and creates less stress and protest by the child.  By increasing the length of time between meals and snacks over a few days or up to 2 weeks, you can help to blunt the response to the change. 

Determine the usual amount of time between your child’s snacks.  If the amount of time is less than 30 minutes or your child is currently used to carrying around a snack container, start with 30 minutes as your snack interval.  Otherwise, set this interval as your usual time between snacks, but not more than 90 minutes.  By avoiding too long an interval to start, you reduce the likelihood of tantrums. You can always increase the time quickly if there is little objection.

After serving a meal at the scheduled time, set a timer.  Be sure to explain to your child that when the timer is up, it will be snack time.  If your child asks for a snack before the timer is up, remind him of the schedule and let him know how much longer until he will eat. 

Be calm, persistent and consistent.  There may be some objection to this new routine.  To minimize, do not make the new interval too ambitious.  You can gradually increase over a period of a few days.

At the end of the interval, offer a snack and when finished, reset the timer.  Snack time should not last more than 15-20 minutes.   Ideally, snacks should be eaten sitting down with digital devices/screens turned off.

Be sure to prompt your child to check in with his hunger/fullness cues to reinforce these skills. If your child is old enough to verbally communicate, provide additional food only after asking your child if he is hungry and remove the snack when he says he’s full. For younger children, look for signs he is full such as pushing food around or a lack of interest in food.

For the snack interval before a meal, be sure there is at least 60 minutes before the meal to promote appetite.  As you lengthen your snack interval, you can transition to 1 or 2 snacks between meals and then to just 1 snack between meals. 

Step 5: Evaluate Results and Adjust the Schedule (if needed)

After you have settled into a routine with your snack and meal schedule, now is the time to evaluate and make changes.  While it may be tempting to make modifications within the first 2 weeks, try to give the new schedule time to become a routine so you can separate out normal issues with change, versus a true need to adjust the schedule. 

You may need to change the time you’ve selected for meals or snacks.  If your child is hungry before the meal, you may need to evaluate the composition of snacks and be sure you are including both protein and fat to provide sustained energy/fullness. 

It may take a few adjustments to find a routine that works best for your child and family’s schedule.  Keeping notes and recording your child’s response to changes will equip you with information to make decisions about how to best adjust the schedule.  



A consistent structure with meals and snacks helps your child eat and gain skills to become a competent eater.   While making the transition can seem a bit overwhelming if your child is currently grazing throughout the day or your meal schedule is a bit chaotic.  However, taking a gradual approach and using information to make adjustment will ensure a schedule that works for your child.  The stepwise approach provided will make the process easier.


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