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Toddler Development: What to Expect and 10 Tips

Do you ever find yourself in a battle of wills at the meal table with your toddler? Try to reason or coax your toddler into trying something new to eat? Or taking over feeding because things have gotten a little too messy?

Welcome to the third installment of our Your Child’s Development Series—and it’s all about toddler development.

As a pediatric nutritionist, I know how challenging toddlerhood can be on parents!

Toddlerhood can be a time of frustration, struggle and self-doubt for parents, and in a nutshell: a test of your parenting skills. The toddler can rock the world of even the most capable parent (dietitians included).

In this article, I’ll review the developmental aspects of feeding a toddler, plus share some of my best tips for feeding toddlers.

toddler development

What’s Going on with the Toddler?

For the toddler, it is a time of budding independence (separation from you), exploration, limit testing, and understanding self-control.

A toddler’s physical growth continues to be steady, but slows down compared to babyhood.  Because growth is slower, the toddler appetite shifts, becoming voracious one meal and light or maybe non-existent at another.

How well your toddler eats from one meal to the next can be as predictable as the roll of a dice.

And toddler eating can worry parents.

Understanding how the toddler develops, both physically and cognitively (fancy word for brain development), can help you get a grip on why your toddler behaves the way he does, especially around food and eating.

Psycho-Social Toddler Development

Erik Erikson described toddlerhood as a time of struggle, during which the toddler figures out who he is as an individual (autonomy) and how to control himself.

The feedback he receives from the world around him helps him figure this out.

The drive to understand the world is so strong, it can get in the way of eating.

Combine these desires for independence, self-control, and exploration with an unpredictable appetite and it’s no wonder your toddler causes you confusion, frustration, and worry!

Some of the most worrisome eating behaviors during toddlerhood are:

  • Refusing or being afraid to try new foods (called neophobia).
  • Only wanting to eat certain foods or getting stuck on one food for a long period of time (food jags).
  • Skipping meals or snacks.

These behaviors are a natural part of toddler development. If you’re not prepared for them, they can test your patience and be the root of negative dynamics at the meal table.

How you respond to this normal behavior is more important than the behavior itself.

10 Tips for Feeding the Toddler

Don’t be over-invested in how well your child eats at a particular meal or snack, the cumulative intake over the course of a week is what matters most. Great meals are often counteracted with disappointing meals.

Watch your responses when your child eats. Overly praising or obvious disappointment with your child’s eating behavior may not give you the results you want, like eating enough or eating vegetables. It’s best to have a neutral attitude and response when it comes to your child’s eating behavior.

Provide structure to feeding your toddler by keeping meals and snacks on a predictable schedule (about 3 hours in between) and within a reasonable time frame (20-30 minutes per meal and 10-15 minutes per snack).

Don’t sweat the skipped meal. This is just a result of the variable appetite that goes with toddlerhood. Use the meal/snack structure to your advantage. Toddlers need 3 meals and 3 snacks each day—if little Johnny skips his morning snack, he will be able to eat again at lunch (or at the other opportune meals and snacks during the day).

Avoid the traps of feeding the same old food everyday just because your toddler will eat it.  Eventually, this tactic will become an obstacle to getting your toddler to eat a variety of foods in the long run. Continue to offer new foods and old foods, in different combinations, keeping your toddler comfortable (he recognizes the old standbys) but also challenge him (introducing unfamiliar foods) at the same time.

Don’t interfere with your toddler’s eating by taking over the spoon, wiping his face after each bite, or pushing him to drink more than he wants to. Remember, eating is one of the ways you can support the natural progression to independence that your toddler is trying to achieve…interfering is just…interfering.

Start using the Division of Responsibility in Feeding— it provides a clear definition of what your responsibilities are (the what, where and when of feeding) and those of your child (whether and how much to eat). You can read more about this here.

Allow choices, but not too many. Try to keep your choices to two options and keep them within the same food group (bananas or pears; broccoli or peas; pasta or rice). Having a choice is the control toddlers are looking for—and an appropriate place to let them have it. While we do want toddlers to be in control of whether and how much they eat, we don’t want toddlers to be in charge of nutrition and feeding—that’s your job.

Pay attention to tasty meals that provide exposure to most of the food groups. Everyone enjoys food that tastes good–even toddlers!

Check your feeding style –a positive and effective style will go a long way in calming the waters at the meal table.

Toddlerhood doesn’t have to be terrible, especially if you know what to expect with development, and how it will impact eating.

Is it possible to relax and enjoy toddlerhood? I think so.

If you have child, you’ll want to read about Your School-Age Child’s Development.

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  1. I love this post! Knowing what to expect for each stage, especially during the toddler years, is so crucial. My son is 18 months and I have experienced (and continue to) all of the above behaviors; appetite fluctuations, food jags, avoiding certain foods, and messy eating. It’s comforting to know that these are all a part of normal development. I try to create a positive environment during meal times, offer a variety of nutrient-rich choices and then let go of any attachment to what he decides…it’s hard but will pay off in the end!

    1. Yes, it IS hard, and yes, it WILL pay off in the end. Fortunately, I have survived toddlerhood–I now look at toddler’s with an immense appreciation for all that they are trying to accomplish–and I chuckle when I see all the typical behaviors expressed by most. It gives great comfort and confidence to know what to expect!

  2. Katherine has been working with our family on these topics. We have implemented these ideas into our family meal time, and while my child has not tried too many new foods, there are no more fights at the dinner table. I call that a success!

    1. Yes, I agree! Just remember, it can take a whole childhood to cultivate the adult palate. 🙂 Thanks for reading –and glad you’re working with Katherine!