5 Toddler Feeding Strategies that Backfire (and 5 that Don’t)

This is a guest post by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen. She is the creator of www.RaiseHealthyEaters.com as well as mom of two, registered dietitian and freelance writer. After becoming pregnant in 2006, Maryann began to research pregnancy, child and family nutrition. She shares her research-based resources and insights on her blog.You can follow her on Twitter at @mtjacobsen.


When I first introduced my daughter to solid foods, she ate most of what I put in front of her – green, orange and otherwise.  Being a dietitian, I was ecstatic to have a good eater.  But other moms warned me to expect a new, pickier version of my daughter as she entered toddlerhood.  “Enjoy it while it lasts” they told me.

At about 18 months my daughter did become skeptical of certain foods.  She no longer stuffed broccoli in her mouth and wouldn’t pick off my dinner plate at restaurants.  But because I knew how to handle her with effective feeding strategies, she has stayed a pretty good eater.

I have learned that “how” you feed you toddler is as important as “what” you put on the table.  Here are feeding strategies that can make feeding your child a monumental task – or a sure delight.

  1. Encouraging them to eat more than they want – It’s tough for parents to watch their child take a few bites of their meal and then declare that they are done.  As a result, many parents will encourage their little ones to eat more or even offer rewards for finishing part or all of their meal.

    Why this backfires? Children are born with the ability to self-regulate food intake by eating when they are hungry and stopping when full.  When parents insist that children eat more, they are teaching them to ignore what their bodies are telling them.  Children can grow into adults who ignore their satiety cues, eating more than their bodies need and gaining weight.

    A better strategy: Ask them if they are sure they are done eating and then excuse them.  Basically, allow them to decide how much to eat.  Ellen Satter, RD, author of Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family, encourages parents to employ what she calls “The the division of responsibility” – parents decide the “what” and “when” of feeding and children decide “how much” to eat.

  2. Feeding only their favorite foods – When kids are extremely picky, sometimes parents will provide them only with foods they like.  They figure “why waste food if they aren’t going to eat it”

    Why this backfires? In Secrets Satter talks about how it takes repeated (neutral) exposure for children to learn to like a variety of foods.  If you don’t give a child the opportunity to learn, they will grow up with a short list of foods they can eat.

    A better strategy: Follow the division of responsibility and decide what’s on the menu at mealtime.  Provide meals that are a mix of foods you know your child will eat and other foods that make up a balanced meal.  For example, if you know your child will eat grilled cheese, serve it with fruit and some milk.  Trying a new dinner?  Make sure there are two items at the table that your child is likely to eat.

  3. Being pushy with healthy foods – When I talk to parents they tell me they never force veggies on their children.  But when I observe them I find subtle coercion going on.  One mom might say, “Mmmm….veggies are so good and good for you” and another might say “you usually like broccoli, how come you didn’t touch it tonight?”

    Why this backfires? Studies show that kids pressured to eat consume less food than those not pressured.  And if kids eat only to please their parents, they probably won’t eat the same foods when their parents aren’t around.

    A better strategy: My daughter never ate asparagus when I prepared it as a side dish for dinner.  I kept serving it and putting it on her plate and she’d take it off saying, “no, no, no!”  One time I left it off her plate by placing it in a big serving dish.  For the first time ever, she grabbed two pieces and ate them.  I sat their silent smiling on the inside.

    All you can do to help your children eat a variety of foods is to repeatedly expose them to it without saying a word. When your children are old enough, let them serve themselves.

  4. Restricting access to empty-calorie foods – Sometimes parents completely restrict foods that offer little to no nutritional value. Or when they do offer something like sweets, they make sure they have to complete a task in order to get it (clean room, eat veggies, finish homework etc.).

    Why this backfires? Consider a 1999 Study published in Appetite.  Girls with the highest level of snack food restriction at home ate the most snack foods when they were freely offered after a meal.  Restricting palatable foods, or making them a reward for mundane tasks, makes such items even more attractive and can lead kids to overeat such foods when given the chance.

    A better strategy: Show your children how to eat empty-calorie foods in moderation by providing them 1-3 times a week as part of a balanced diet.  For example, have cookies and milk for a snack or chips with a sandwich. And use other non-food items to reward good behavior.>

  5. Limiting how much they eat – While toddlers are known for erratic eating, a select few eat very well.  In fact, parents of these children often worry about weight problems and may attempt to control how much their child eats at mealtime.

    Why this backfires? My dad grew up very poor where food was scarce.  After he and my mom married and had 5 kids, he made sure to finish our plates whether or not he was hungry (at least my parents didn’t make us finish them!).  But he dealt with a weight problem his whole life.If you limit how much your children eat at mealtime, they begin to see food as scarce which can lead to obsessive food thoughts.  This is why diets don’t work – purposely limiting food intake makes people want to eat more.

    A better strategy: It comes back to the division of responsibility and letting your child decide how much to eat.  Your job is to provide balanced, nutritious meals with empty calorie (fun) food in moderation and to make physical activity a normal part of their life.

To sum up
It’s not always easy trusting children to know how much food they need.  But try to remember that your goal is bigger than just having a toddler that eats well – it’s having a toddler that grows up to be a healthy, happy and confident eater.  The right feeding strategies may not guarantee this, but it sure can increase the likelihood that your child will never have to diet, fight chronic disease or waste one minute feeling guilty for enjoying the pleasure of food. And that makes it all worth it.


Fisher JO. Restricting access to palatable foods affects children’s behavioral response, food selection and intake.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;69(6): 1264-72.

Birch SR, Daniels MW, Gilman AH, Lichtenstein KT, Steinberger J, Stettler N, Van Horn L. Dietary recommendations for children and adolescents: A Guide for Practitioners. Pediatrics. 2006:117:544-59.

Fisher JO.  Effects of age on children’s intake of large and self-selected portions. Obesity. 2007;15(2):403-12.

Secrets to Feeding A Healthy Family: How To Eat, How To Raise Good Eaters, How To Cook by Ellen Satter, RD

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