How to Get Toddler to Eat - Skip the Struggle and Worry!

“Tell me how to get my toddler to eat!” As a parent, you worry when your toddler starts to refuse previously eaten foods, or eliminates entire food groups like meats or vegetables. 

From a sudden preference for only crunchy foods to a shrinking list of vegetables that aren’t snubbed, concern is a normal and natural response. You may wonder if your child is getting enough of key nutrients or is destined to be a picky eater.

The Truth about Feeding Toddlers

Helping your toddler learn to try new foods starts with understanding normal development. While picky eating isn’t “normal” for toddlers, food neophobia (fear of new foods) does occur. How you respond during this phase will play a role in preventing persistent picky eating behaviors.

Feeding toddlers also isn’t a battle of will. What often happens is that well-meaning parents start using techniques that make things worse. Pressure, bribing, distracting and rewards for eating are common tactics.

There are far more effective, no-pressure ways to help your child try new foods.  By following key feeding principles, you can avoid the stressful meals that pressure tactics create and support your child to have a healthy relationship with food.

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Getting Your Toddler to Try New Foods

Helping your toddler try new foods begins with understanding the steps to eating (1). You can then use strategies that encourage steps forward and confidently know what to do when steps backward occur.

These steps are the work of Kay Toomey, PhD a pediatric psychologist and expert in the field of childhood feeding problems. She developed the sequential oral sensory (SOS) approach to feeding. Dr. Toomey trains clinicians that specialize in feeding disorders and helping children that struggle to eat. I’ve completed this rigorous training, earning a certificate of completion demonstrating my expertise.

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When you enter the steps to eating beyond your child’s skill level, you experience resistance.  If you try to pressure your child to move up the steps when he hasn’t yet mastered the current step, troubling behaviors can occur.  

Many of the behaviors that you interpret as picky eating are your child’s way of escaping an eating experience that is making him uncomfortable.

For some children, there is also a strong sensory component to why they struggle with new foods. Whatever the reason, the steps to feeding provide a framework to support your child to develop skills to try new foods without pressure.


What are the Steps to Eating?

Trying new foods doesn’t begin with chewing and swallowing. While some children (and for some foods) leap up the steps, for many foods like vegetables and meats, it a much more step wise process.

The steps to eating offer a reference point to gauge your child’s progress towards trying a new food or preparation method. Instead of defining success as taking a bite, you recognize and support the small, yet significant steps on the way. 

During feeding, you create opportunities through play, conversation and meal routine to help your child move up the steps to eating. Play is one of your most valuable tools to create curiosity about new foods.

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How to Use the Steps to Eating

To use the steps to eating, you must tune in to the signals your child is sending. Overt signals like pushing a food away or becoming anxious or upset about a food on her plate, tell you that you need to move down the steps.  Also pay attention to subtle cues including posture and facial expressions. Use this information to determine where your child is on the steps to eating.  

For each food, your child can be at a different step. For example, pasta with butter at chewing/swallowing, but pasta mixed with red sauce at interacts. Your child may also move up and then back down the steps to feeding.

As you tune in to the signals your child is sending, you will be able to match the feeding experience with your child’s current skill.

When offering your child a new food, begin at the first step, “tolerates.” For other foods, begin at the step last achieved. Use the response of your child to guide you up and down (when needed).

Summary

Getting your toddler to try new foods is less about what you offer, and more about how you help your child master the steps to eating.

Match the feeding experience to your child’s current skill, paying close attention to the cues your child is sending you. Step up and down based on the response you observe.

Measure your successes not in bites eaten, but in watching your child master the skill of feeding. This provides your child with skills to approach all new foods with confidence.

Next Steps

A pediatric dietitian that specializes in helping children with feeding issues can assist you in learning how to master the steps to feeding. Providing your child with the just right challenge encourages skill development without causing struggle.

Book a complimentary discovery call to learn more about how I can help your family and child master trying new foods.

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References

  1. Star Institute’s SOS Approach to Feeding. Accessed 2/28/2019 https://www.spdstar.org/basic/feeding-therapy