Managing Mealtimes with Your Toddler


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When feeding a child you are trying to do two things:

  1. Offer nutritious foods so that your child will grow and be healthy. Even with the addition of complementary foods, breastfeeding is still recommended until age two and beyond.
  2. Teach him to behave in socially acceptable ways, i.e. proper table manners.

These are two separate and totally different tasks. When feeding a toddler, concentrate on nutrition and let the table manners go for now.



  • A toddler cannot sit still for very long.
  • A toddler cannot help making a mess, as he does not have fine motor control.
  • A toddler needs to be as independent as he can be; he needs the opportunity to learn and practice.
  • A toddler is easily frustrated.
  • Mealtime atmosphere should be relaxed and enjoyable. It is not a time for discipline.
  • The more you try to impose rules and regulations on eating, the more likely it is that a struggle will occur. Your toddler wants to assert his independence so he won’t eat. You become more and more upset so your child eats even less and each mealtime becomes a power struggle, a time of stress and tension.
  • Avoid making battles over food and eating. You won’t win.
  • Never force a child to eat!



What you can do to make mealtimes with your toddler more positive?


Believe that your child will not starve.

It is surprising how little food a toddler really needs. From 18 months to three years of age your child’s rapid growth rate slows down.

  • Your child is less hungry so food intake decreases.
  • A toddler grows in height more quickly than he or she gains weight.
  • A toddler loses body fat.
  • There is no single food that is absolutely necessary.  Nutrients in one food will also be in some others. As long as your child is eating a variety of foods from each of the food groups most days he’s likely getting the nutrients he needs to grow well.
  • A toddler’s desire to eat can be overwhelmed by struggles with parents, excitement, and fatigue.
  • Pay attention to whether your child seems energetic and is growing well.


Be aware that the responsibility for feeding a toddler is divided between parent and child.

  • You are responsible for what your child is offered to eat, where and when it is presented.
  • Your toddler is responsible for how much and whether she eats.
  • Offer a wide variety of foods.
  • The older a child gets the less willing he or she will be to try new foods.
  • Toddlers typically eat a lot of one thing for awhile and then will refuse it. Food jags are normal and aren’t a problem as long as the food can fit in a Food Group.
  • Don’t evaluate your child’s diet on a daily basis – it will probably look terribly unbalanced.  Instead, look at your child’s intake over a week.  His diet will most likely be perfectly balanced in the longer term.
  • At each meal offer foods from different food groups and let your toddler decide what to eat and how much of it.
  • Set limits for your toddler. Don’t feel compelled to create a different menu just because she won’t eat what has been prepared.
  • You are promoting your toddler’s independence by allowing her to pick and choose from what’s available.


Offer child-sized portions.

  • A child will feel overwhelmed by too much food on his plate and may refuse to eat at all.
  • A child’s serving is 1/4 or 1/3 of an adult portion size.
  • Give less than you think your child will eat and let him ask for more.


Offer nutritious snacks.

  • Toddler’s stomachs are small and they use up a lot of energy. What they eat at mealtime will not carry them until the next mealtime.
  • Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks can make up for foods not eaten at mealtimes.
  • Make your own "Healthy Snack Chart" by gluing pictures of healthy snacks cut out of magazines onto bristol board. Let your child choose a snack from the pictures.


Encourage your toddler’s independence. Set your child up for success.

  • Prepare food in a form that is reasonably easy for your toddler to manage, for  example, finger foods, thickened soups.
  • Don’t help unless your toddler asks for it.  If he does ask, don’t feed him; just assist by loading his spoon, for example:
  • Let your child eat by any method even if it is messy. Getting the food in is the important thing, not whether it is done in a neat and tidy way.


Let your toddler eat in any order or combination.

  • Don’t interfere if your child wants to eat his fruit first or adds his peas to his applesauce.


Let the meal end when your toddler has had enough.

  • If she doesn’t want anymore, she’s done. This should be up to her. Teaching your child to listen to her “hungry” or “full” cues is important for preventing overeating later in life.
  • Trying to get her to eat just one more bite will only create a problem.
  • Sitting still is difficult for a toddler.
  • If you want her to feel part of the family group at the table, let her sit up with you, eat what she wants, and then let her get down to play.


Try to keep mealtime enjoyable.

  • Mealtime is not the time to argue, scold or fight.
  • Children will pick up on tensions and they will not want to eat.


Try not to use food as a reward, punishment, bribe or threat.

  • Try to keep your child’s eating completely separate from his discipline.
  • Avoid using food (sweets, treats) as rewards; your child will learn to place an unhealthy emotional value on food.


Remember to stay calm about eating and meals. As long as your child is growing and is active, he or she is getting enough to eat.



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