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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Feeding toddlers on the go

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

The primary goal in feeding is not getting food into your child right now. It is helping your child grow up with eating. To grow up with eating, your toddler needs structure: meals and snacks at regular times that you pick you. You are feeding your child as if he were a baby when you give food and beverage handouts in the car, have food sitting around at home, and use contraptions to make such feeding possible: Sippy cups, food pouches, snack traps. 

Children need help growing up with eating

Keep in mind that the primary goal in feeding is not getting food into your child right now. It is helping your child grow up with eating. Your child needs to learn to participate in family meals, to behave well there, and to pick and choose from the food that you make available at meals and snack time. It doesn’t matter if the food in the pouch, on-the-go cup (or bottle), or snack gadget is nutritious, organic, or all the same food as at mealtime. When you feed on the go, your child doesn’t learn to be participate in family meals, and in the long run, his nutrition will suffer.

Your child’s signs are misleading

The primary goal in feeding is not getting food into your child right now. It is helping your child grow up with eating.

In previous stages you could feed based on signs coming from your child: signs of hunger and fullness, signs that he wants to eat solid food – or doesn’t, signs that he wants to feed himself. But with the toddler, the signs are misleading. Toddlers’ growth is slower than in previous stages, and they eat less. They get picky. They prefer drinking their food to eating it. They beg for food. They are so cute and seemingly so capable when they say ”milk, milk,” or ”juice, juice,” or ”cookie, cookie.” They are so convincing when they pitch fits to get what they want! They eat so little at mealtime, and love slurping and munching on the go.

Take leadership with feeding

In all things, and in feeding in particular, your toddler needs structure. In fact, all his shenanigans with feeding are saying: “I need you to know more than I do about this. I need you to take charge of my behavior with eating.” Now the division of responsibility in feeding changes, and you take over the when and where as well the what of feeding. Your toddler is still responsible for the how much and whether, even when the how much is very little and the whether is not eating something, even if he has eaten it many times before. However irresponsible he seems with his little spoonfuls and swallows and finger-fulls of food, he knows how much he needs to eat.

Courage: feeding will become easier

It isn’t easy to get the toddler up to the table six times a day for meals and snacks. It isn’t easy to spend a lot of your life in the kitchen, preparing, offering, putting away, cleaning up. Especially when the child spends 5 minutes eating and then wants to get down. Courage. Teach him for play quietly while you finish your meal, and look forward to more companionable meals later on. As your child gets older. he will spend more time at meals and ever-so-gradually increase the number of foods he eats.


To understand why toddlers are the way they are, and to read some funny feeding stories, read “Feeding your toddler,” in Ellyn Satter’s  Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense.  

Family Meals Focus ~ No. 08


To see what positive feeding looks like as well as to read about it, see Ellyn Satter’s Feeding with Love and Good Sense DVD II. For home use version, click here.

Family Meals Focus ~ No. 34


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