Meal Time Routine

Meal time happens several times a day which provides a great opportunity for establishing a routine that supports behavior, self-control, healthy eating habits, social skills, and self-feeding skills.

  1. Meal time should be a relaxed, enjoyable, social activity!
  2. Toddlers should eat 5-6 meals a day (every meal counts; use every meal as an opportunity for a healthy food choice rather than an unhealthy snack)
  3. Children and caregiver sit at a table during meals and engage socially. Sitting at a table also helps the child with learning to use a spoon, fork, and cup.
  4. Adult sits with child during meal and focuses on child (no distractions). This is a great time to develop language and social skills.
  5. Solids foods are provided before liquids (except water).
  6. Meals last maximum 30 minutes. Meal ends when the child signals he is done (loses interest in the food, throws food, signs “all done”, turns head to food offered) even if he only took 2 bites.
  7. Child drinks ONLY water between meals. Children have to develop hunger to prepare for the next meal, they need to learn how hunger feels to learn self-regulation of food.
  8. Every meal consists of at least 3 different food options.
  9. A new food can be put on the plate together with 2 familiar foods, the child will choose if to try it.
  10. Adult chooses what foods are offered, child chooses what and how much they will eat. Track what your child eats over a week. It is typical for toddlers to eat close to nothing some days and load up on other days. Don’t worry if your child chooses to eat only the pasta one meal as long as he eats a variety of food groups over the week.
  11. Portions are small and food is added as needed. Too much food on a plate might overwhelm a toddler and they will end up not eating.
  12. No praise or criticism for eating, no playing games to encourage eating. You can talk about the food (“yum, I love green broccoli”) but do not attach emotions to it as this opens the door for power struggles.
  13. Food is never a reward.
  14. Self-feeding is encouraged.
  15. Playing with food is allowed for 15 minutes (as long as it is not destructive), then food is removed.

Compiled by Sara Torten, MS, OTR/L