Simple As That: Toddler Meals (less is more)

toddlerlunchphoto by pillowhead designs

When our older daughter was twenty months old, we went out to eat at a steakhouse.  I was skeptical that there would be anything on the children’s menu for her and had tucked some toddler-friendly food into the diaper bag.  As I scanned the children’s menu, I noticed they offered a “toddler plate” that consisted mostly of sliced cherry tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, and a few other bits and pieces of food meant to be eaten with little fingers.

I remember thinking there was no way that would be enough food to make up a meal, but to my surprise it was exactly enough.  As silly as this sounds, that was sort of a revelation for me!  I had been serving her half-sized portions of our meals, and often felt frustrated by the amount of food we were throwing away.

Jill Cooper (Living on a Dime) writes about this concept in an article at Mommysavers titled, “Save Up to 50% on Your Grocery Bill“:

It is easy to forget that children under the age of four have only about a quarter of an adult’s body weight. Often, we feed them adult portions and when we do give them smaller portions, each portion is usually only reduced to about half an adult portion . . . When deciding how much food to give your kids, start small and work your way up. Remember, if they eat what is on their plates you can always give them more.

Try applying the basic principles of simple living to the mealtimes.  Ask yourself, what is essential?  How can I trim back and serve only the necessary? Simple living and frugal living can meet in the kitchen, making a noticeable difference in your food bill as you become an even better manager of the resources entrusted to you.

What does toddler mealtime look like in your house? Any toddler meal challenges or triumphs you would like to share?

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  1. You know, I have some of those plates with the little dividers in them…like a school lunch tray–and that dictates what we eat: a little square of cheese, a few blueberries, a spoonful of frozen peas and sweet potatoes. I always say if I ate like my toddler I’d be a lot healthier! 🙂

    • @amanda, I have said the same thing to myself many times. I definitely am much more conscientious about their meals than mine!

  2. Oh this is timely for me. I’ve completely forgotten how and how much to feed the new-to-chewing set. I’m learning to feed Peabody (13 months) one thing at a time, giving him a little bit of something else as he finishes the first item. Otherwise he seems overwhelmed at the choices and ends up making “casserole” on his high chair tray. When he’s done, I help him “fill in the cracks” with a little organic whole milk yogurt or some applesauce. Would love some suggestions from you and your readers on finger foods that are healthy and pleasing to the one-year-old palate, as well.

    • @Megan, I always found the one-thing-at-a-time approach to be the best for the newest eaters. They definitely get overwhelmed! I think you’ve sparked a great post idea for me. 🙂

  3. We’re fighting the “too busy to sit down for dinner” almost 3 year old sydrome. Getting him to sit in his own chair and eat for more than 2 minutes is a challenge. It doesn’t help that he was recently spoiled by grandma/aunt/cousins while visiting – they would “help” him eat. Which translates to he wants you to feed him. Uh no. You’re almost 3 and you know how to do it yourself. (I don’t mind helping with tricky foods after he’s given it a go.)

    I find protein is our challenge. The boy will eat veggies and fruit until he turns purple/orange/red. But put anything other than a chicken nugget in front of him and it will be ignored. So now I’m trying to offer the meat first (in uber small portions) then the fruits/veggies. Carbs are also not high on his priority list unless it comes in the form of a french fry. Luckily he loves sweet potato fries…as do we!

    • @bdaiss, oh my yes. We have MANY issues with not enough protein around here. Especially with our four year old – the born vegetarian. And our (days away from being) two year old starts each meal in her own seat for two minutes or so, and then she is lap-hopping the rest of the time. Just wanted to make it clear that mealtimes in our house can get, um, interesting, too!

  4. I have reached the “they’re eating as much as we do phase!” – especially with our two 4-yr-old boys. But that’s only sometimes (especially during growth spurts). At other times I think finger foods are so simple and easy, can be healthy, and kids love them!


    • @steadymom, it IS amazing when they start to actual human-sized portions! Maybe I shouldn’t confess to our occasional trips through the McD’s drive-through – ahem – but our four year old has graduated up to the 6 piece chicken nugget meal. Those little bodies do start needing more and more and sometimes I think I lag behind the adjustment.

  5. such a great reminder! we’re working hard on getting our little guy to eat what we eat instead of fixing something we know he likes…wish he wasn’t so picky…hope we’ll continue to make some good progress!

    • @jodi, oh, we struggle MIGHTILY in our house with this, too. I am the one who tends to make the girls what I know they will eat, while my husband is more consistent in getting them to eat what we are eating. It’s always an issue here!

  6. Thank you for this topic! My son is only 13 months ans still cutting most of his teeth, but he doesn’t want to be fed anymore. Add to that the pediatrician’s concern that he might be a little underweight and my guilt that I had to stop breastfeeding at 71/2 months due to illness. Can my son really live on tomatoes and yogurt (a combination that is hard for me to stomach)? This article and everyone’s comments have me thinking. I think we’re expecting him to eat a lot more than he needs to so we worry ourselves. He really does eat more than tomatoes. Like:
    spinach hummus on strips of toast
    baked apples with cinnamon
    corn stripped form the cob
    black beans and baked beans–cold or hot
    mashed avocado on toast strips
    any fruit: watermelon, berries, peaches, banana…anything
    It’s hard not to worry, though, and to resist the urge to pile food on to his highchair. Thanks for this supportive discussion.

  7. Such a great reminder! My husband has such a hard time understanding portion sizes for 2 year old and I just emailed him a link to this so that he can hear it from someone other than me;)

    • @Lillian, I’ve read that our stomachs are about the size of our fists. Of course they will expand to accommodate our meals, but if you look at a two year old’s fist, they are really pretty small! It makes sense that they just don’t need *that* much to eat. Our two year old does better with small servings throughout the day.

  8. When my daughter was still eating mostly pureed foods, I read a tip on Parent hacks to use small custard cups for serving foods, instead of the large divided plates and toddler bowls. Many nights all she eats is one of these dishes filled with heated, frozen mixed vegetables; or a portion of what we’re eating small enough to fit in that bowl. If she finishes and wants more, we’re happy to oblige. But we rarely have wasted food from her meals.

    • @Yolanda, I hadn’t thought about it, but yes! A small custard cup would be exactly right for a toddler sized serving. Thanks for passing that along.

  9. I’m a big fan of the divided plates. Little “tidbits” are more appealing to our 3 year old. Some of his favorites: hummus with a few pretzels stuck in to use as “scoopers”, sliced strawberries, carrot sticks dipped in ranch dressing, natural peanut butter and raisins with celery “scoopers”, mini pizza bagels, rice, small pieces of salmon (check carefully for bones), rice, breaded chicken cut in strips, thinly sliced beef, chunks of cheese, vanilla yogurt.

    It’s important to remember that toddlers appetites are very variable; one day they might nibble at their dinner, other nights they will more than make up for the previous night.

    • @Kim, that is SO true about the variance in appetite. I find that for my younger daughter, there is often variance in what foods she is into. She went through a phase where she just couldn’t get enough cottage cheese, and now she won’t touch it!

      Those are fantastic food ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  10. My husband and I were just talking about this. The greatest bit of advice I ever heard about a toddler’s eating habits is to not focus on what they eat each day, but what they eat over the course of the week. One day my son will barely touch his food and the next he eats like he’s never seen a chicken nugget before.

    The other thing we do to get our son interested in eating is to let him help us fix the food. It’s amazing how much more he likes to eat when he’s had a part in making dinner.

  11. I try to offer my daughter a bit of what we are eating: chicken, fish, veggie, etc. But I also always have some of the foods I KNOW she likes as backup: peas, carrots, sweet potatoes, beans and cheese, avocado, yogurt. She’s a good eater; I’m lucky! If I do use one of the plates with dividers, I don’t put fruit in it until the very end. She’s CRAZY about fruit. I can’t even use the word while she’s eating something else, or it’s fed to our golden retriever.

  12. I tend to give my 16-month old more than she needs, and half of it ends up on the floor. I’ve found that if I can feed her alone and separate from the other kids, I can be more diligent about the appropriate portion sizes (and give her more variation). When we’re all eating together, there’s too much activity and chaos to go back and forth from my plate to hers. She ends up getting a little too much of whatever we’re having, and I have to clean up the mess afterwards.

    I think a compartmentalized plate in the best way to go! I just need to do it more often!

  13. Jean-Marie says:

    Such a timely topic for us. I kept wonder why my 2 year old would only eat his cantalope or carrots and not touch his grilled cheese. I usually offer up a fruit or vegetable while I’m preparing the protein portion of the meal to keep the little one happy. But now I’m thinking I’m giving him too big of a fruit or veggie portion and he gets too full by the time the rest is served. (Of course he has no appetite for the portion that requires the most effort 🙂 ) I’m going to see if I can get a better balance by serving smaller portions. Thanks for the insight!

  14. Wow this was a great one for me. I always feel like I’m failing when my kid doesn’t eat, but this puts it in to perspective and gives me a better idea on how to encourage him to eat better, while not worrying that he isn’t eating enough!

  15. I always start out with very small portions of food on our children’s plates. I know if they are still hungry, they will ask for more. And, I want them to be in tune with their satiety. Knowing when they are satisfied with a meal is important to learn. We do not belong to the “Clean Plate Club”. Many of us grown-ups either haven’t learned it or have to learn it in adulthood. It’s so much harder to learn as a grown up!

  16. I’m glad to see I share the anxieties of many other mothers when it comes to what their children eat! My daughter is 13 months. Some of her favorites are yogurt, cheese (!), baked beans, fruit, carrots, sweet potatoes, crackers, lunchmeat, etc. One area I struggle with is veggies, though. She only eats a couple different veggies. We don’t like that many veggies ourselves, so I’m slow at figuring out how to cook them and what ones are safe for her age (she only has 4 teeth). Can anyone make some suggestions?

  17. Oh, I need help too. My 13 month old, with only 4 teeth also, pretty much still only eats pureed food as his main meals. He’ll eat crackers, fruit cereal bars and LOVES yogurt as snacks. He is our first so we are very new to teaching someone how to eat. But we’ve been so frustrated because it seems that he is such a picky eater. Thank you for your post and all the comments. I’ll try some of them and hopefully our little boy will become more of an independent eater. I think I have to constantly remind myself to be patient and that it’s not going to come over night.

  18. So, how do you fix dinner/lunch for a 2 1/2 year old who has sensory issues. His meals consist of:

    French Toast Sticks (Cinnamon or Plain)
    Diced Cheddar Cheese
    Handful of Raisins

    I offer and offer one or two new things time and time again, but it gets refused or “sorted” We have resorted in substituting the “foods he does not eat” with smoothies, containing: Baby puree (fruit and veg), Greek nonfat yoghurt (protien), DHA/Omega 3 drops for toddlers (whole foods stores), Polivysol for Toddlers, and Kefir (probiotic drink). We throw in the occasional benifiber, just to be sure.

    He will also eat:
    Yoghurt (NO LUMPS or Fruit bits)
    Milk (Any)
    Whole Grain Goldfish (favorite)

    I am sure it is a texture thing. If he sees lumps.. forget about it.. if it is squishy or messy, like mac n cheese, forget it…. I need substitutions for the french toast, he has been eating this since he started on solids… He used to like boiled egg cut up with whole grain toast, fed to him with a spoon.. but he won’t go near it now.

    Need advise. Thanks! (Am I the only one going through this, is it just a phase? I have made an appt with an OT, but can only see her end of June)


  1. […] post on Toddler Meals {less is more} elicited some great discussion and helpful advice in the comments.  In fact, it has inspired me to […]

  2. […] Last week’s post on toddler mealtimes elicited some great discussion in the comments.  Several of you asked for ideas on finger foods for your toddlers.  I decided to create a two-part series with some ideas that have worked well in our family, and I hope others will share their toddler favorites as well! […]

  3. […] Realistic portions Remember that toddlers don’t need a full serving, nor do they even need a half-sized serving in most cases.  They have little tummies that fill up […]