#8: Toddler Eats Too Slowly

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Today’s topic is slow eating toddlers and stalling toddlers, who are using mealtime as an excuse to avoid doing something else. I’ll be sharing my top tips from what has worked for clients in the past when they’re up against these issues. 

QUESTION

“Hi Kacie, my daughter just turned two and she likes to stall her lunch so that she doesn’t have to go down for a nap. She’s at the second percentile for weight, so we’re always trying to get more calories in her but lunch is between 45 minutes and an hour. And of course, when she starts stalling, she munches on the least calorie-dense option, whether it’s fruit or pretzels rather than eating the higher calorie options I’ve given her.  Is it ever okay to cut her off and say you’re done eating I think. All right. Thank you so much, bye-bye.”

ANSWER

It’s so common for toddlers to stall to avoid nap time or bedtime (or anything they don’t want to do, really!) And taking a long time at a meal can become a habit for a variety of reasons. 

In the episode, I answer:

  • How long is reasonable for a meal?
  • How can I cut them off without a meltdown??
  • What if they didn’t eat very much?

Toddler Eats Too Slowly? Here’s help:

How long is reasonable for a meal?

  • 45 minutes is PLENTY and it’s longer than your little one will get at daycare or preschool, but it’s a good place to start
  • Work down to about 30 minutes, some kids who eat slowly really will be eating this whole time but if they start messing around and it seems like they’re done eating, you can even bring it down to about 20 minutes
  • Minimize distractions (no screen) – see episode 4 for help to reduce screen time at meals

How can I cut them off without a meltdown?

  • Prep them for what’s coming – let them know you’re going to place a time limit
    • Reassure them that this will be plenty of time for them to eat, we’re just going to create a “meal time” on our schedule, and then move on to the next thing on our schedule
  • Visual aides- visual timer, daily schedule free download
  • Give alerts when it’s close to the end of the mealtime 
  • They may still protest especially if they’re trying to stall or avoid something they don’t want (like naptime or bedtime). But you’ve already done your job. You created the right environment for the mealtime. They had enough time to eat. If they are not totally satisfied, at this point, that is not your fault. They will learn from you creating this consistent boundary that mealtime is when they need to eat. So you can then calmly and firmly transition them to the next activity.

What if they didn’t eat enough?

  • If the doctor has expressed concern about their low weight gain, then you want to always prioritize fat at meals. Try smaller portions so you don’t overwhelm them. 
    • For example, a lunch might be a cup of whole milk with a small scoop of chicken salad (made with mayo or avocado) with ½ slice buttered toast and dried fruit.
    • For more help with high calorie meals go to this post
  • If the doctor is not concerned about low weight, but you just feel like they didn’t eat enough, ask yourself these questions:
    • Did I offer at least one thing I know they like? If yes, then you know they could have eaten more of that if they wanted. You can give seconds or thirds of something too.
    • Are they acting hungry?
      • Young kids are really good at tuning into their hunger cues. If the food is available, and they’re just not eating a ton, it’s very likely they’re not that hungry right now. It’s okay if they don’t eat more.
    • Did they snack recently?
      • If they had a snack within 1-2 hours of their meal, it’s likely that they’re not super hungry. And again, it’s okay if they don’t eat more.
  • What I don’t want you to do is offer a favorite food at the end of the meal if you feel like they didn’t eat enough. This can throw EVERYTHING OFF. Let me explain.
    • You serve the meal. They pick at it for awhile, they don’t eat very much, you’re worried they’re not going to be satisfied or full enough. So now you give them something you know they REALLY like. Think annie’s bunnies, or goldfish, or a pouch, for example. And lo and behold, they eat it. But what happens now? They learn to hold out for something better than what you initially served. It becomes a pattern. 
    • Instead, make sure there’s something they like at the meal. Know that it’s okay if they didn’t eat much. They will have another opportunity later. 
    • If they try to act like they’re suddenly hungry at the end of the meal, that’s a stall tactic, they had plenty of time to eat. You end the mealtime and move onto something else. This is not mean, even if they tell you that you’re mean or they hate you. They’re mad that they didn’t get their way, and that’s okay.

Resources from the episode:

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