Both you and your child want mealtimes to be as pleasant as possible. You also want to be sure he eats enough healthy foods to help him grow and develop as he should. It is a big step to go from bottle or breast feeding every 3 or 4 hours to having a regular schedule of 3 meals and 2 snacks a day. Use this information to help you navigate this transition successfully.
Once your child is a toddler, it can be a challenge to stick to a mealtime schedule. At this time, he is learning how to feed himself and may not want your help. He may not always want to eat when you want him to. Often, he would rather play than sit down and eat a healthy meal. But learning good mealtime habits is very important and will benefit your child for the rest of his life. Here is a plan for structuring mealtimes and helping your child to learn these important new habits:
Before starting to feed solid foods, check to see if your baby is ready. Your child will give you cues.
Your baby is ready for solid foods when he:
- Is able to keep his tongue in his mouth most of the time.
- Watches you eat and acts like he wants to eat also.
- Can stay in a sitting position with you holding him only low at the hips.
Most babies can usually do these things around the time they are 6 months old. Some infants, especially premature babies, may not be ready until they are older. Feeding schedules should follow the child’s corrected age if he or she is premature. We continue to correct for prematurity until 2 years of age.
- Start with 1 meal per day. Pick the time that the baby is most hungry so he will be more likely to eat new foods. Once your baby is eating solid foods well, you can add another meal.
- He or she should still be taking breast milk or formula several times per day. That is the main source of nutrition for all infants.
- Infants can start pureed baby foods at 6 to 8 months and mashed or ground soft table foods around 8 months to 12 months of age.
By starting your baby with a mealtime plan early, he or she will already be on the road to success. Ideally, by the time they are toddler-age, your child will be used to a schedule of 3 meals (alongside family at mealtimes) and 2 to 3 snacks a day.
Have a “sit to eat” policy.
Eating should always be done while seated at the table or in the highchair. Meals should not be longer than 30 minutes. There are several good reasons for this:
- This is an ideal time for you and your child to interact and have pleasant talk. Having set times to sit down and eat each day helps with family communication.
- It is easier to stick to the 30-minute structured time frame if your child is not walking around carrying food or drinks and “grazing” all day.
- Sitting to eat is the safest position for your child. Avoid lying down, walking or running while eating or drinking because it is unsafe.
Serve nutritious, well-balanced meals and snacks
Each day, offer foods from all 5 food groups:
- Grains (breads and cereals)
- Protein (Beef, fish, chicken, pork, beans and eggs)
- Dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese)
This diet provides the nutrients your child needs to grow and develop as he should. Give milk with meals to make sure he gets enough calcium for strong bones and teeth. Water is good anytime.
Do not give in to a “picky eater.”
If your child refuses the healthy foods you give him, end the meal on time. Do not offer food again until the next scheduled meal or snack. This will teach your child that he needs to eat the food you provide at the time it is given. This is a very valuable lesson for your child to learn. If he does not eat at mealtime, he will just be hungrier for the next meal and there is a good chance he will eat what is provided.
- Plan a week’s menu for 3 healthy meals and 2 snacks per day. Then stick to your menu, even if your child refuses some meals.
- Keep your child out of the kitchen and away from tempting favorites like cookies or chips. Better yet, remove them from the home for a while. This can help to reduce a hungry toddler’s tantrums after he has refused a meal.
- For older toddlers, you can use a sticker chart to reward good eating. Let your child put the sticker on the chart himself.
- If your picky eater is extra stubborn, you may have to limit snacks or treats. That way he will be even hungrier when mealtime comes. This is especially true when starting new, “difficult” foods like vegetables or meats.
Control eating and drinking between meals and snacks.
Give only water between meal and snack times. Do not allow “grazing” or walking around with milk or juice. It actually helps to let your child’s hunger build up a little. When it is time to eat, a very hungry child is more likely to accept the foods you want him to eat.
Watch for signs of dehydration
During the changeover to new liquids, it is important to watch for signs that your child is not getting enough to drink. Call your child’s doctor if you notice any of these signs:
- No wet diapers for 8 hours or more (at least twice a day for toddlers and 3 times a day for infants)
- No tears when child cries; eyes look “sunken”
- Mouth feels dry or sticky
Check your child’s weight at the doctor’s office regularly to ensure good nutrition and hydration.
HH-IV-89 7/06 Revised 8/17 Copyright 2006, Nationwide Children’s Hospital