Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. Sounds easy, right? But as every parent of a one-year-old knows, feeding time can be endless, messy, and a little bit maddening. Perhaps it's because every child presents his or her own challenges. My daughter, Seena, 15 months, insists on feeding herself but only manages to get about 10 percent of the food into her mouth. When her big brother was her age, he simply refused to feed himself at all, opting instead to be waited on as if he were royalty.
What's your toddler's table manner? We've tackled four very different eating styles and sought out expert opinions to make your family's mealtimes a little less stressed.
Style 1: The Smear Campaigner
Your kid's food gets everywhere but in her mouth. Sure, she nibbles a few morsels now and then, but almost everything else lands in her hair, on the wall, on her face, and (of course) on your new white shirt.
Sound familiar? That's because smear tactics are quite common at this age. "Kids are messy, but that's part of the food experience," explains pediatrician Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year. "They will usually consume what they need to." If you're truly concerned, your pediatrician can confirm that her growth is on track.
How to lessen the mess? Each time you see your child tossing her food everywhere but into her mouth, calmly announce that mealtime is over. Soon enough, your toddler will learn that she can't stay in her high chair when she isn't eating.
Style 2: His Royal High(chair)ness
Your pampered prince likes to be served. He'll eat when you take on the task, but he refuses to feed himself.
How can you encourage a child to self-feed? "Don't make a big deal about it," advises Renee Klang, a nutritionist in Pasadena, California. It's fine for a 12- to 18-month-old to be fed; sometimes toddlers simply aren't physically or mentally ready to feed themselves. After 18 months, though, says Klang, most toddlers are able to self-feed and even use utensils.
If your child simply prefers to be fed, encourage independence by giving him his favorite finger foods. "Have him participate at mealtime and sit at his high chair while you're eating your own meal," Klang says. "Try to ignore his initial protests. Gradually feed him in between your own bites." If he is truly hungry, he'll start to feed himself.
Style 3: The Gobbler
Your child shovels as much food into her mouth as possible, and you're worried she's going to choke. She eats everything in sight and still wants more, more, more!
To slow her down, give her a smaller portion, then offer more when she finishes it. "For instance, give three or four Cheerios at a time, not a handful," Klang advises. Offer a sip of water between each course.
When feeding such an avid eater (and any child under 3, for that matter), be sure to avoid choking hazards like raisins, grapes, uncooked carrots, hard or chewy candies, and hot dogs. And make sure both parents and any other caregivers have taken a CPR class.
Style 4: The Extremely Discriminating Diner
Your toddler acts as if eating is torture. He'll push the food around on his high-chair tray, but he seems to have no interest in putting it in his mouth. Sound familiar? First, look at what your finicky diner does eat. If you're letting him load up on sugary snacks, you risk ruining his appetite for the healthy foods he needs, says nutritional-therapy specialist Eileen Renders.
Also keep an eye on his consumption of fluids. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 16 to 24 ounces of milk and four to six ounces of fruit juice a day for a one-year-old. The only other liquid your child should drink is water. By sticking to these nutrition guidelines, you'll ensure that your baby's appetite isn't obliterated before his mealtime even begins.
Finally, encourage your picky eater to be more adventurous at mealtime. Be patient and persistent—studies have shown that repeatedly offering a particular food is the key to acceptance. "Your 'Sam I Am' will eventually try green eggs and ham," Dr. Brown says. "But it is important to be low-key. Toddlers are savvy. If they think you want them to do something, they may do the opposite. Just keep serving those peas and broccoli and see what happens." Offering a new food ten times or more before a child tries it is not uncommon, Klang says.