Let Your Toddler Play With His Food

Tasting, touching, smelling, smearing and feeling food in her mouth are how a typical toddler eats her food. What looks like “playing” with food is a young child’s natural way of acclimating herself to it. The tastes and textures of foods are all new to little ones. This exploration is essential to their development, says Marilyn Tanner, M.H.S., R.D., L.D., head dietitian and nutritionist in the pediatric endocrinology and diabetes department at Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

How do you make sure she’s getting the nutrients she needs?

Give your toddler time to explore her food, and try not to rush meals. Don’t worry if more food seems to end up on the floor and on her face than in her mouth. “A toddler’s appetite will vary,” says Tanner. “But research shows that young children usually consume the same amount of calories day to day.” If a child is excited, ill or teething, she may eat less than usual.

What should portions look like?

Tanner offers this quick guideline: Give one tablespoon of food item per year of life (e.g., give your 3-year-old three tablespoons of chicken, three tablespoons of applesauce). Never force a child to eat, she adds, or allow meals to become a battle between you. When a child is finished, she will turn her head away from the food, shut her mouth tightly or say “No.” Respect these signals. If you’re worried that she isn’t getting enough food, talk to your pediatrician about where she falls on the growth charts.