Understanding what our toddler might bring to the table

24 June 2018. By Lorren

I know sometimes mealtimes with our toddlers can feel like a battlefield. Raising kids to eat well and enjoy food is often easier said than done. We are surrounded by information on what kids should be eating, but that doesn't always translate into what our little ones want to eat - let alone a good vibe at the dinner table!

I can’t count the number of meal times where every new food I offered my toddler was rejected without a second glance. Even the favourites from yesterday, pushed to the side today!

This constant cycle of negotiation, rejection and dinner time meltdowns can push our buttons and wear us down. It’s hard not to take personally, especially when you’ve worked hard to create a beautiful family meal.

Let me share something that has been a real revelation: It’s often nothing to do with us and sometimes it’s not even about the food.

Trying to understand our child’s perspective and what is happening for them developmentally, makes it easier to be more patient and compassionate. It helps create meal time routines and responses that support them. Enabling us to connect, learning to enjoy mealtimes is something we work on together, rather than at opposing sides of the tabletop battlefield.

This connection is key to raising a happy, healthy eater – and having peaceful, positive mealtimes.

When we give our toddlers a new food there’s a whole raft of things going on in the background that affects what they choose and reject at that time. All too quickly someone may label our kids as ‘picky eaters’ because we haven’t thought about these other things. Our buttons get pushed, and our guilt grows. None of this helps us react in a way that improves our situation. We end up with meal times where everyone comes to the table dreading dinner.

So what is going on in the background?

Preparing to eat

When our children are deeply engrossed in play, it can take quite a lot of convincing that they should step away from a really fun toy or game and come to the table for a meal. One way we can help our toddlers become more relaxed with meal times is for us to calm and slow down our routine. Give them time to understand what is about to happen, and what we need from them.

What can we do?.

Giving a pre-dinner warning (5-10 minutes) will help them finish up their play and begin to prepare mentally for the meal. Routines like hand-washing or helping set the table can all help transition, winding our toddlers down from play and bringing their attention to the mealtime.

Sensory overload

Our toddlers are constantly learning. A 2 year old’s brain is processing around 1 million neural connections per second, in response to their experiences in the world around them! That is a tonne of information going in and requires a huge amount of their energy and focus.

Meal times are one time of day that can be overwhelming, for a number of reasons.

Think about all the senses being used at a meal time, the information our little one’s brain is receiving: the tastes, smell, sights and sounds that surround us at the table. All the biting, chewing and digesting. Every part of our body is involved.

As adults, we’ve already learned a great deal about what we like and what we don’t. We rely on our senses to tell us that what we are eating is appealing in some way, or at the very least safe to explore and try.

Can you imagine what it’s like for a toddler to experience all these senses at once, and having to process, understand and feel at ease with that barrage of information.

What’s going through our toddlers’ head is something like … Why can’t I stay playing? Can I find a comfortable place to sit? What is that strange smell? How does this new spoon work? Is it strong enough to dig the table? I want to sit with them! No, I want the blue cup!

All before they’ve even inspected what food is on offer!

What can we do?

Give choices from options that you feel comfortable with - would you like the red or blue cup? This helps them make some decisions about what works best for them.

Set the scene for peace by reducing unnecessary distractions and input. Turn off the TV or loud music. Using placemats can cut the noise of cutlery and plates on the table.

Testing times

So not only might they be sensory-overloaded at mealtimes, there’s also a whole load of independence happening with our toddlers.

As our kids go through the toddlers years (when they’re most likely to be labelled ‘picky eaters’) what our little ones are really doing is developing their sense of self, a sense of independence and building their language.

And (but wait, there’s more), they’re also exploring their relationship with us.

An important part of exploring relationships and boundaries is learning what happens when they say “no”. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t stop at mealtimes! Not only are our toddlers exploring and testing the food and cutlery, but also their relationship with us.

What can we do?

Reflecting back to toddlers “ok not today” when they say “no” is a great way to leave the door open for trying new foods another time.

Food rejection is normal

A really useful fact to remember: Some children need be exposed to certain foods between 10-20 times before they begin to enjoy or even try them. Unbelievable isn’t it? 10-20 times. That’s a whole heap of times. Not just once, not just once a day for a week but 10-20 times.

Kids also have more sensitive taste buds than us so are able to taste things more acutely. So if our toddlers reject green beans the first time, don’t get disheartened. It doesn’t mean they always will.

Remember, there are probably foods that some of us never learn to love (Anyone that knows me, has seen the lengths I will go to avoid eating coriander!)

What can we do?

Have a few options for your child to choose from at the table, with at least one choice being a food they will usually eat. If a child says no to a food, you might acknowledge with something simple like “You don’t have to eat it” then move your attention back to enjoying your own meal. Since they have other good options to choose from, this acknowledges you have heard them, without it turning into a lengthy heated discussion!

It’s not always easy to understand what is happening with our little ones, but if we can step back, observe and consider- it may help us respond more often with patience & kindness.

I found these strategies really useful, and so did others who The Food Tree has helped over time.

Did you find anything else helped? We’d love to hear how you set up your mealtimes to help your toddler, join our conversation here on Facebook @thefoodtree.co.