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I Can Do It Myself! Independent Toddler Eating

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Updated on Feb 22, 2012

Toddlers are experts at pushing boundaries. From testing out new physical abilities to testing your limits at the grocery store, most of his behavior can be chalked up to a daily battle for independence. When your toddler reaches an age where he can physically and verbally tell you "no!" it can start some major issues at the dinner table. These tiny tyrants are notoriously picky and love their routines, so no amount of explaining about broccoli's benefits will get your defiant toddler to take a bite. Instead, allowing him to lead when it comes to his diet helps foster independence and a healthier array of foods.

Of course, your tantrum-throwing toddler might balk at the idea of eating food outside of his comfort zone. In fact, a study by Glasgow University found that 20 percent of parents voted food, diet and eating as major problems with their small children. Since toddlers can be so defiant, it's always best to make it seem as though eating a varied and healthy diet is completely his idea. Some creative parenting can help calm dinner table woes and get your toddler to try new foods on his own terms.

Self-Feeding and Motor Skills

Babies can usually start to self-feed around 9 months, but it's important you offer the right foods. Soft, safe foods—such as cooked peas, banana chunks, bite-sized pieces of bread and tofu cubes—are best, since your baby's still learning how to chew food.

After mastering finger foods, Dr. Anne Zachry, a pediatric occupational therapist, suggests moving toward using utensils. "Around 12 to 15 months of age, a baby usually has developed the motor skills needed for learning how to use a child-size spoon and fork. It is usually a good idea to allow a toddler to self-feed as soon as he shows an interest and has the motor skills. You can begin by providing some hand-over-hand guidance with scooping and then let your child bring the food to his mouth independently. Gradually fade your assistance as your little one takes over. Don't worry about the mess; that's part of the learning process." If your toddler seems more intent on painting with his pudding, relax. It's more important that he have a positive experience at the table to help reduce dinnertime stress.

Introducing New Foods

Toddlers are creatures of habit, which is why your little one might turn up his nose at a new food being offered. Never force your stubborn toddler to eat something new—it's a battle you'll probably lose. Instead, try introducing a new food with one or two of her old favorites. For instance, fill the cups of a muffin tray with a few chunks of old favorites and then save two cups for new foods. Don't make a big deal about the new food. In fact, if you ignore the new option, your toddler can make the decision all by himself, making it less of a fight for you. If he doesn't want to try the new food, just wait and serve it up another day. It might take three or four tries for your toddler to notice and nosh on the new nibbles.

Eating Style

Think about all the different ways that you eat on a daily basis, from chowing down in the car to grabbing a bite while you watch TV. Some toddlers like to eat at the table, while others prefer to graze on the go. As long as your little one is getting enough to eat, you don't need to worry about how and where mealtime occurs. Some kids are simply too busy to stop and eat, so sitting out a meal in a high chair seems like torture. Others will prefer to eat with the family, so you'll have to set a place for an unruly toddler at the table. Play it by ear to find out which is best for your child. As long as you avoid any potential choking hazards—such as skipping snacks while reclining in the car—there's really no wrong way to eat.

Mister Manners

OK, so your toddler isn't going to win any awards for etiquette at the table. But playing with his food, making silly noises and eating in different ways are all how your toddler learns about texture, sound and reactions. While it's tempting to step in and feed your toddler when he's making a mess, remember that he's busy developing his personal preferences when it comes to food. Try to relax—lessons on manners can come when your toddler's old enough to understand social norms and proper behavior.

Remember that kids from 12 to 36 months are learning and growing everyday. While you might think it's gross to smash peas with a spoon before eating them, your toddler probably thinks it's a hilarious way to test the texture of his food. Encourage that independence by offering new foods and maybe even playing with your peas, too.

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