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Feeding Series: The Toddler Years
If you’ve been following our Infant Feeding Series, it is now time to move into the Toddler Years, ages 12 to 36 months. At this point, you have successfully progressed your baby to table foods with the rest of the family. Isn’t it wonderful? Now, be prepared for all that mealtime togetherness to change!

The toddler years begin a time when eating is not high on your child’s priority list. Most young toddlers are getting around on their own by now, either as early walkers or very fast crawlers, and there are too many things to learn and explore that are more important than sitting still for more than a few minutes. Visible growth also slows down after the first birthday. Your baby won’t gain a lot of weight but will get taller. He will start to display food preferences, stop eating foods previously loved and exhibit real signs of independence. And things can change daily! The easiest way to get through this period as a parent is to maintain flexibility and a sense of humor!

12 to 24 months
After the first birthday, whole milk can replace formula. Babies fed on soy formula can wean to soy or rice milk; breastfed babies should continue nursing until mum and baby decide it’s time to wean. You will notice a significant drop in milk drinking because it is no longer the major part of your child’s diet. Toddlers should be offered fluids by cup only, as bottle-feeding can damage new teeth, even before they have come through the gums. Also, if you haven’t made a visit to the pediatric dentist yet, this would be the time to make an appointment.

Continue to offer small amounts of food to your child and allow him to ask for more. Many little kids are not able to use utensils at first and will use their hands. However, you should avoid the temptation to feed them yourself or resort back to baby foods. They will learn the skills needed to get a spoon from plate to mouth by observing you but will take the easier path if they know you will break down and feed them.

Although your child may have a fair number of teeth, the chewing molars are not yet in. Avoid foods that are “chokers”: hot dogs, raw carrots, chicken fingers or anything that can get stuck in the throat. Toddlers love pastas, cheesy foods and foods they can pick up themselves. Cereal with milk is difficult to eat, but dry cereal with a glass of milk is acceptable. Oatmeal is always a lot of fun! They don’t usually like combination foods like casseroles because they can’t always identify what’s in them. It is recommended that peanut butter be avoided before the second birthday because it can also cause choking in some children.

As children become more mobile, it’s a constant fight to keep them in a chair to eat, but you must set some rules that your child is expected to obey. If you want your family to gather at mealtime, your little one should understand that he must also be present, at least for the start of the meal. If he does not want to sit, he should not be given food. He will soon learn that eating means following the rules. Actually, many children who are resistant to sit probably aren’t hungry, and it is important that mealtime not become a battle for attention from the rest of the family. Let him go on his way, and when he comes back to eat, put him in his chair. Again, avoid the impulse to hand him something to eat while he cruises around. I promise, he will not starve!

24 to 36 months
The older toddler will be more accepting of new foods but will still have definite food preferences. Don’t be alarmed if, after eating macaroni and cheese for three months, he suddenly refuses it. He might be tired of it or is trying to tell you that he wants to try something else. Instead of making yourself crazy trying to determine what he wants, offer him new foods this way:

  • Point to the food items on your own plate and ask him if he would like some. If he says yes, give him no more than a spoonful. If he likes it, he will ask for more. If he says no, eat some of the food yourself and make “yummy” sounds, but be sincere. Kids this age are wary of parental trickery! If he still doesn’t want it, move on.

  • If there is nothing on your plate that he wants, but he still appears hungry, give him dry cereal or cheese and crackers to nibble on. However, don’t get yourself into the habit of cooking a new meal just for this child. Children should learn to eat what is being served.
Decreased appetite can also signal an illness coming on. If your child continues to refuse to eat over two days, call your pediatrician. Most children will drink fluids even if they will not eat, so offer juices, gelatin and other liquids to keep him hydrated. Milk and milk products may be refused if the nose is stuffy because milk protein actually increases mucus production.

Set a time you expect your child to stay at the table, and be firm with your decision. After the time is up, let him go about his business.

Keep in mind that your toddler is not programmed to eat only three times a day, but rather prefers to graze. Snacks should include foods that are high in nutritional quality and should be able to be eaten quickly so that he can go back to his activities. I recommend cut-up soft fruits and vegetables, cheeses, crackers, dry cereals, milk shakes or smoothies and homemade juice pops. Time the snacks so that they don’t interfere with his appetite for the family meal, and don’t offer too much. Be aware also that little kids are busiest during the day and may prefer to have a larger lunch than dinner, especially if they go to bed early.

Learning your child’s hunger cues and eating preferences will help you avoid the stress of feeding a toddler and may also keep you from developing a “fussy eater.” Keep in mind that we have our own likes, dislikes and agendas as adults, but we have control over our meals and activities. Toddlers have to rely on you to provide these, and they are hoping you understand their wants and needs.