The toddler years are a time of rapid growth – physically, mentally, and emotionally! Most toddlers are developing their sense of self and want to start doing things independently. When a toddler’s desire to do something doesn’t align with their ability, it often results in frustration. Typically, toddlers also lack the language skills to ask for help if things don’t go as they wanted. This gap between desire and ability can cause frustration, uncooperative behavior, and tantrums – especially at mealtimes.
Typical Toddler Development
- Are beginning to understand simple time concepts, such as “now” and “in a few minutes.” The distant future or “forever” are still too complex to conceptualize at this age.
- Are able to follow simple requests, like “sit in the chair.” Two-step commands, like “eat your food and clear your plate” usually can’t be completed.
- Are starting to play “pretend,” such as feeding toy food to stuffed animals.
At this age, toddlers are developing self-awareness, or the realization that they’re individuals and separate from other people. Excited by their skills, they often struggle with their emerging independence. It’s common for a toddler to:
- Resist your comforting one moment, only to run to you the next.
- Understand and use the word “no” as a way to assert themselves.
- Use tantrums as a way to reflect frustrations and competing feelings.
Some Toddler Tips
- Respect the Nap/Snack: When planning errands or outings, try to schedule them around nap/snack times when your child is less likely to be hungry or tired
- Visual schedules can be a great tool to give toddlers a clear idea of what the sequence and expectations of the day (or mealtime) are.
- Be Consistent and Calm: At home, let your child work through their tantrum. If in public, remove them from the situation, take a deep breath, and respond calmly while not giving into demands.
- Redirect when Necessary: If possible, try and redirect your child physically or verbally to focus on something else before a tantrum escalates.
Toddlers and Mealtimes
It’s common for toddlers to start asserting their newfound independence at mealtimes, whether through self-feeding or being selective with foods. Help avoid the power struggle by trying these recommendations:
- Establish a set mealtime schedule, offering 2-3 snacks and 3 meals a day at 2 ½ to 3-hour intervals.
- Eat meals at the table and make them a family affair – limit TV, toys, and any other distractions. Children may be more engaged at mealtimes if they have their own special chair, plate, cup, placemat, crazy straw, etc. to make their own “special spot.”
- If your child has difficulty remaining seated, try having your toddler complete some “heavy work” before mealtimes (pushing their chair across the room to the table, crawling under coach cushions to make a fort, etc.). Children are also usually able to remain seated for longer periods of time when their feet are touching the ground or supported. Tying TheraBand across the legs of the chair can help provide some support for a toddler.
- At each snack or meal, offer at least 3 different tastes and textures. Keep presenting new foods repeatedly, the more exposure the better!
- Keep meals fun and relaxed. Use only positive reinforcement (cheers, clapping, praise) and don’t be afraid to play with food! Some ideas include:
- Using cookie cutters and food coloring
- “Finger painting” to make a picture or face out of food
- Building a tower, train, person, etc.
- Changing the size, shape, or color of food to make it more interesting
- Do not force feed your toddler. As your child is experimenting with their newfound independence, force feeding typically only adds to the power struggle.
1 Team, Children’s Health. “7 Tips to Help You Survive Your Toddler’s ‘Terrible Twos’.” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, 3 Jan. 2019, health.clevelandclinic.org/7-tips-help-survive-toddlers-terrible-twos.
2 “Milestones for 2-Year-Olds.” Milestones for 2-Year-Olds | Michigan Medicine, www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/ue5313.
3 “Top Tips for a Happy Mealtime.” Infant & Toddler Forum, 9 Aug. 2019, infantandtoddlerforum.org/articles/top-tips-for-a-happy-mealtime.