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Nourishing Your Independent Toddler

By Cathe Olson

Somewhere between 12 and 18 months of age, your easygoing infant becomes a toddler striving to take control of his or her activities. When you want her to get dressed, she decides pajamas would be perfect for the park. When you call him to come in, he runs away laughing as you chase him.

Mealtimes are the worst. While your baby ate anything you put in front of her, you may now have a finicky eater on your hands.

Don’t let the table become a battleground. Here are a few ways to make meals enjoyable for the whole family and to help your child develop a healthy attitude toward food.

Encourage independence
Allow your child to feed himself. Let food be something he wants and goes after rather than something he submits to. Prepare bite-size dishes like noodles, diced poultry or tofu, steamed broccoli florets and diced carrots. Kids love to dip things. Serve pancakes, French toast or waffles with applesauce or yogurt for dunking. Encourage (but don’t force) your toddler to try different foods. Allow your child to have some choice in what he eats.

Accept the method
If your toddler is most comfortable using her fingers, let her. If she manages to use a spoon or fork, all the better. Don’t discourage any effort your children make to eat on their own. To encourage your baby to spoon-feed herself, serve a bowl of her favorite food with a small, easy-to-manage spoon. Try applesauce, yogurt, mashed sweet squash, etc.

Permit any order
Let your kids eat food in the order they choose. If they want to eat applesauce first and vegetables last, that is their prerogative. Both of my daughters pick all the raisins out of their oatmeal to eat first. I used to be afraid they wouldn’t eat their cereal afterwards but they always did. Children notice if you are placing more importance on sweet food. Example works very well here. Let them see that you enjoy your broccoli and carrots as much as fruit or cookies.

Keep it simple
Chances are if you go through a lot of trouble preparing a fancy, gourmet meal for your children, that will be the dish they refuse. Toddlers’ tastes change from day to day, and you will end up frustrated or disappointed if they won’t eat your special dinner. Don’t make your child feel guilty if he genuinely doesn’t like what you have prepared. Simply give him something easy like a bowl of rice or peanut butter toast, and let the rest of the family enjoy what you have prepared.

Believe your child will not go hungry
Toddlers often refuse to eat their meals causing their parents to worry. Pediatricians agree this should not be a source of concern. Your child will eat when she is hungry, and missing a meal here or there will not cause malnourishment. We have our toddler sit at the table with us at mealtime even if she doesn’t want to eat. Usually, it’s only a few minutes before she realizes she is missing out and reaches for her meal. Try not to make a big issue out of getting your children to eat. The more they see it is important to you, the more they will dig in their heels and resist.

Limit snacks
Your children will not eat meals if they spend the day snacking. Establish a morning and afternoon snack time. Serve healthful snacks like fruit, crackers, cheese, etc. Avoid very sugary or salty snacks as they encourage overeating. Give water between meals as milk and juice can leave your child too full to eat his meal. Serve milk or juice with meals if desired.

Do not mix food with discipline
Toddlers are constantly testing their limits. Resist the temptation to use food as a bribe, reward or punishment, as this will not foster a healthy relationship with food. A treat should not be given because a child is good and withheld when she is naughty. Treats are simply on the menu some days and not on the menu other days.

Know when to end the meal
When your child stops eating or says she has had enough, end the meal. Don’t insist she finish every bite on the plate. Some food may be wasted, but insisting a sated child finish his meal is not healthy. Kids know when they are full. Encourage them to listen to their bodies so they will not overeat. Treat your pet or compost pile to the leftovers.

Enjoy mealtime
Tense, stressful mealtimes will not help your children to develop a positive attitude toward food. Certain rules to maintain order, i.e., no yelling or throwing food, are necessary for the enjoyment of the rest of the family. More subtle table manners can be learned by example rather than authority. Your child wants to act grown up and will try to imitate you. Young children may act up at mealtimes because they are bored. Include your toddler in conversation so he feels part of the family. It’s a great time for your child to practice speaking and increase her vocabulary. You may be surprised by what your toddler has to say.

© Cathe Olson

Cathe Olson, her husband and their two daughters live in the hills of central California where they raise organic vegetables, fruit and herbs. Cathe is a freelance writer and the author of Simply Natural Baby Food: Easy Recipes Your Infant and Toddler Will Love. For more information or to order a book, visit


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