Mealtime Zen and the Art of Toddler Feeding

One of my little daycare friends is a charming 19 month old girl. She is what most describe as a going concern, babbling a string of sounds and one syllable words, climbing onto couches, chairs and tables and creating the kind of chaos only a toddler can with expert speed and precision. She eats an enviable amount and variety of food, anything from goldfish crackers to grilled salmon, and everything else in between, including grass, sidewalk chalk whatever else she can grip with her fingers.

three phases in timed shutter release

three phases in timed shutter release (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Parenting literature commonly warns that toddlers will change their eating habits to match the slower pace of growth that occurs after the first year of life. This change in eating doesn’t necessarily occur on their first birthday, but sometime around or after 12 months. Parents can expect their child to show preferences for certain foods more than others, and the amount of food their child consumes to become less consistent. This can be a gradual process, or it can happen quite rapidly, like over a period of days or somewhere between breakfast and lunch.

My little cyclonic friend never really slowed down her eating after her first birthday. If it ended up on her tray, it ended up in her mouth. While her 17 month old partner in crime is a little more cautious, her adventurous foodie nature seems to encourage his curiosity as he watches her shovel back garlic roasted potato and green beans with enthusiasm. That all changed last week when I set up their feeding trays with corn kernels, ham and cheese stuffed perogies. Cyclone looked at her tray, then at me with contempt, and with one deliberate swipe of her arm, tossed the entire spread onto the floor.

Perhaps she’s tired, I thought, as our morning playtime went longer than planned. I took her out of the chair and brought her upstairs for a nap. When she woke, there was another opportunity to eat, and I offered some of her favourites. Strawberries, blueberries and cheese.


I held out her sippy cup of milk, which she took and promptly thrust it airborne, toward my head.

February 27th 2009

(Photo credit: -JosephB-)

Other than missing two opportunities to eat, she was happy, energetic, and her usual trouble-seeking self.

What the parenting literature doesn’t state with nearly enough emphasis is how important it is at this developmental crossroad to trust children with eating. Even children this young know how much they need to eat, when they don’t feel well, if their mouth hurts and what they are comfortable eating.

This food refusal continued for the next three days, over which time Cyclone ate all of a single chicken nugget and 1/4 cup of milk in my care. On Friday afternoon, our treat day, she devoured the better part of 3 slices of cheese pizza and an entire box of orange juice. I also noticed a new molar while I tickled her during a diaper change.

Cyclone’s appetite has improved since the arrival of her new tooth, but her eating has most certainly changed. There are meals that she will pick at and only eat a few bites, there are meals she will devour faster than I can serve her, and there are meals where discovering the effects of gravity are more interesting than the food. Through it all, she continues to smile, play and explore with energy to spare. At this stage, behaviour is a better indicator for overall health than the amount of food she is eating.


(Photo credit: Clover_1)

In this case, the best response to Cyclone’s food refusal was to simply trust her with eating. And knowing when to duck.