I got a message from a reader last night – it went something like “I have an 18 month old. Neha! How do you handle meal time? It’s a struggle here. How do you guys do meal time and can you give any ideas for recipes to try”
// This is a LONG POST – I tried to be as comprehensive as possible.
As I read it, I had reminder-flashes of Zoe throwing her full plate of khichdi or hurling a handful of blueberries across the room like a snowball because she was “all done”. All done could mean she either is done eating, which could be either not hungry or just doesnt want it. I still havent gotten over the trauma of washing her hair was covered in peanut butter because I made the mistake of giving her the entire jar and a spoon and turned my back because there was chai on the gas. Well – what can I say – people who say they have easy kids who eat everything – are either lying or really-really lucked out.
Mess aside, my other gripe is that she doesn’t eat or doesn’t eat enough. According to my mom – Indian moms will always worry about food. Food is our love language and feeding is a way of showing how much we love someone.
Now having said all this, I will share one of the turning points in my perspective about handling meal time and feeding the toddler in general. I attribute it to our pediatric doctor and my husband. Our doctor believes in encouraging to eat and teaching them to know when to eat and feeding themselves vs. parents feeding the child. There’s a good life metaphor there as well if you read into it.
The philosophy is to simply put food in front of the child. Allow her to feed herself. Initial days would be met with throwing, messes, refusal to eat but eventually they learn understand that this is routine. This is how meal time works.
The other important ( and difficult for me to accept, but something I find very useful) advise that our doctor gave me was if she refuses to eat at meal time, don’t offer her something later that is out of meal time. It sends the toddler a message that they will eventually get their way. Yes, its tough to see your kid go hungry – but the truth is that kids do not stay hungry. When they are hungry – they will eat. The biggest help here is that my husband is as chilled out as they come! He doesn’t stress about Zoe skipping a meal or two and coaches me every single time on that ideology.
Dont get me wrong. By no means, I am saying that I don’t stress about our meal struggles or by no means are our mealtimes always are a breeze – but I probably don’t get as frazzled as earlier ( on most days atleast )
Let’s start with what our meal schedule looks like –
- 7.30 am Breakfast + smoothie/milk
- 9.30 am -5pm : meals at school ( snacks/lunch/snack )
- 5 pm snack at school / snack at home
- 6.30pm dinner, followed by milk
Meal Ideas ( breakfast, snack, lunch, dinner )
- Oats, Roti, Puri ( fried wheat puri ), bread (lightly toasted )
- Smoothie : Anything and everything : regular milk/almond milk + fruits ( bananas, strawberries, blueberries ), a couple teaspoons of oats, almonds, spinach/kale. ( You don’t have to use all these at all times. Spinach changes the color of the smoothie and my daughter gets picky if the color is different – so that’s a hit or miss at times. Tip : I usually freeze half the box of strawberries that I get from the grocery store and have it handy for smoothies )
- Zoe’s school provides the snacks and lunches ( phew! such a relief that is. I might say that this was one of the reasons we picked this daycare ) I love their menu – it is healthy, always vegetarian options and plenty of variety. Apparently she also eats melons and carrots and cucumbers at school which she turns up the nose at when at home.
- School snack options are crackers, apple sauce, fruits, cut veggies like carrots/cucumber, hummus, nuggets.
- Other snack options that I go with are : biscuits, bread, puris, roti, thepla, fruits, smoothies, crackers, sabudana vada, dosa, fryums.
- Khichdi ( the Indian go-to option =)) ) I get super creative with my khichdis – the grains can be rice, dalia, quinoa and any of the dals/lentils ( moong, chala, tur, green moong, white urad, etc. ) Also veggies – tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, carrots, beans, peas, corn, brocoli. Yogurt as a side dish.
- Dosa – if you follow us on stories, my husband makes the best dosas!. Needless to say we are all fans.
- Roti + some gravy vegetable – like potato and peas. Yogurt as a side dish
- Pizza – she’s our daughter and thinks of pizza as a primary food category. So I guess we are raising her well – haha!
- Pasta – with store-bought pesto sauce. Or cooked in butter and cheese and fresh basil and tomatoes.
- Roti-subzy-yogurt. Basically anything you eat, offer that to the kid.
Meal-time PHILOSOPHY / TIPS : Make it fun-Make it a routine
1. Sitting in one place : One big philosophy that Amit and I both believe in are not to run behind the kid to feed her. Food should be eaten sitting down in one place. It sounds tough considering that they are so active and sitting still for more than 10 seconds is impossible for toddlers. But being disciplined and stern about this day after day, meal after meal makes it part of the routine. Try to keep things like place where to have meals consistent too – like a high chair or small-table or wherever you typically eat dinner.
2.Keeping them engaged / make them sit through dinner : We have a no TV/iPad during meals rule.
We do a few fun things during dinner : reading, doing sticker books to keep them entertained helps. We sometimes do puzzles/blocks while eating to get her to sit while she eats. The toy phones/toy laptops also are good distractions too. If it is a messy food like khichdi or she is just too fussy to eat herself – we would feed her and let her flip the pages of the book, read, do the puzzles herself to keep her engaged and sit through.
We encourage her to feed herself and if she does even half the meal herself that’s a win. That way they remain engaged and focus on the act of feeding themselves ( and learn )
Coming back to using TV/iPad during dinner, there are days when I do end up using the last card in my pocket. For example when traveling ( like when in India at home – because of the changed setting, other factors like jetlag etc . a distraction like TV can help ) or if we are in a time-crunch because say we have to go out – then we do use it. But on most days, it’s not allowed. At restaurants – she is very distracted by other things, playing with other people there, running around – so I have another challenge there , i.e. running behind her and the iPad doesnt help any way. haha.
3. No force feeding and no substitutions : The same rule that I mentioned above, that our doctor advised us on – if the child doesn’t want to eat something that is on the menu – don’t force feed, don’t offer additional options, don’t compensate by offering milk or juice. One or two instances of this and the kid starts understanding that throwing tantrums during meal-time will not be met by demands for other favorites. And do not resort to bribing ( if you eat this – ill give you this, etc. ) – it is a short term strategy.
4.Amount of food expectations : We overestimate the amount of food that our baby can eat. I am very guilty of this – I always want her to eat more than what she would actually eat. Ughh – it hurts so bad when your child doesn’t eat enough. But my husband keeps reminding me that the kid’s “enough” is different from what I am hoping for.
5.Keep expectations low : Which brings me to the most important tip – keep your expectations low. Don’t sit down with the idea that dinner is going to be an easy and fun time with no tantrums/no throwing/no spills. Or the baby is going to eat everything on the plate. Somedays may be good and some days are tough.
The key is to keep the routine ( schedule, dinner rules) steady. Exceptions are okay yes, but they shouldn’t become the everyday thing. Kids learn by repetition and setting a routine is very important and good way to teach them.
6. Don’t stress out : At the end of the day – do what works for you. Don’t stress too much about it. Patience and routine. Repeat it. =)) xo Neha