Feeding a toddler or a very picky small child can be challenging. When my oldest was small, she was a picky and reluctant eater. Recently, I learned about ARFID, Avoidance/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. It is an eating disorder where children and adults just are not interested in eating and may struggle to eat enough to maintain their health. I have realized that many of the techniques I used to help my child eat, may be helpful for other parents struggling to get their toddlers to eat more. You can also supplement with smoothies or protein drinks made for kids. But we had fun with the list below.
Please be aware that these are just parenting techniques, if your child is struggling to eat enough for their health, you should seek help from a health care provider.
I purchased a child-sized, real tea set. Whenever my child was sick or eating especially poorly, we pulled out the tea set. I would put just a few foods on each tiny plate, make a sweet fruit tea to go in the pot, and set her up with her dolls. Each little plate could hold 1/4 of a sandwich with no crust, 3 berries, or other “cute” foods that were easy to eat. Small bites and fun food made this into a game instead of a meal. When we turned the food into a game, it helped her eat more.
Our tea parties always took place on the floor, on a towel or blanket. That way, if there was a lot of mess, I could shake the crumbs out in the yard. I also liked to give my kids a very tiny sugar bowl with sugar and a tiny baby spoon, so they could add their own sugar to their tea. Did they need that extra sugar? Maybe not, but it let them learn to control their own food in a different way. It gave them power over the tea and enhanced the game. It helped them drink more fluids, another goal I had for the game. The tiny sugar bowl only held about 2 tablespoons of sugar, so I didn’t worry that it was going to really harm them even if they ate it all in one cup of tea.
Another way to encourage your child to eat more is to use divided plates. Fun divided plates like these remind you, the parent, to put a variety of foods on your child’s plate. This leads to better nutrition and may lead to better eating. Children like the fun factor and may eat more.
There are tons of divided plates to choose from, too. Simple ones like these are great. This plate that looks like a board game is also a fun way to put a bite in each space so your child can eat their way to the end. You can even add a sweet treat at the end! Just be sure not to overfill the plate and put more food on it than your child can reasonably eat.
Did you know that any time you aren’t eating at the table, your meal can be considered a picnic? And boy, do kids love picnics! While you can plan to pack a lunch and take your child to the park to have an adventure, you don’t have to. Create a picnic by spreading out a blanket and eating on the living room floor! Make it more exciting by spreading the blanket in the yard and having your picnic there.
Just changing where and how you eat can be enough to engage a child to eat better. However, you can make it even more exciting by creating cute picnic items like small sandwiches cut into shapes or using bento boxes to bring a variety of foods. The internet is full of moms making super cute lunches, but you don’t have to go overboard. Tiny containers that each hold a few grapes, cookies, or other snacks are fun. If you can turn the food into a face, that is sure to get a giggle and a few more bites into your child!
Make Snacks Fun
Snacks are another great ways to increase your child’s intake. I used to put out a mini muffin tray on the coffee table for my toddler to snack on. Each muffin cup held a single berry, bite of an apple, piece of cereal, cracker, or cheese cube. Something tiny a toddler can pop in their mouth! This turned the snack into a game. Take a bite and empty the cup! Once your child eats it all, you can easily refill it. Sort of like a charcuteries board for toddlers!
If you need more ideas for fun snacks and meals you only have to look around online to find people who are turning their child’s food into cute shapes with cookie cutters. To this day my husband says that “pretty food tastes better.” Taking the time to make snacks fun or cute really can make a difference. And when your child is old enough, you can have them help make their food fun.
Hang in There
Most kids go through a picky phase of hating foods that adults enjoy. If your child eats so little you are worried, please read my post about ARFID. Being aware of what your child eats and offering a varied diet is important. Adjusting to meet their needs if foods need to be more fun or engaging is a great way to help get through that picky phase. Food can be fun!
P.S. Here are links to the various items I’ve recommended today.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.
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