toddler feeding a toy sitting in high chair

The Power of Feeding a Toy During Meals

Eating should be fun. For adults, trying out a new restaurant in town with friends is a fun way to enjoy food. For a toddler, being silly and playing with their food is their definition of fun. I’m not saying that every child should bring toys to the table at every meal.

I actually do not recommend this in general because it is beneficial for the child to be focused on their food at times and enjoy eating simply for the joy of enjoying food. But if your child is really picky or struggling to eat for any reason, it is okay to use toys during mealtime more often as a strategy.

child playing with dinosaur toy

Today I stayed home with my sick two year old. He has had a cold for the last few days and not the greatest appetite. While it is not a good idea to force a sick child to eat (it is normal to have a decreased appetite when you’re not feeing well and we want to respect that), it is important to eat a little something and especially to get enough fluids for hydration. For this reason, I was hoping he would at least take a few spoonfuls of soup and I was willing to be flexible in how that happened.

When you become a parent, you realize the importance of having flexibility in your life. Kids have their own ideas and it is empowering to allow them to make decisions when possible.

This can be as simple as letting them choose which color cup they would like to use when you offer them something to drink. For lunch today, my son wanted to bring his train and stuffed animal to the table. I wasn’t excited about the stuffed animal for obvious reasons, but he is so attached to it right now and I know it is a comfort object for him. Since he was not feeling well and had been really fussy today, I decided this was not a battle that was worth fighting. I decide to be flexible and it paid off.

At first he just ate a few bites and said he was done, but he soon had the idea to feed his toys and this helped him to eat more. My son is such a playful kid and has been really into playing with his toys lately, so I did not even have to intervene with this strategy. He then ate several more spoonfuls after he fed his two toys their portion. And luckily for me, the stuffed animal did not even get dirty!

When I am working with children with feeding challenges, I often incorporate this strategy into the meal. Here are a few ways you can incorporate toys into feeding for toddlers and young children:

  • Feed a doll, stuffed toy, or figurine using different utensils
  • Feed different animals and talk about the way different animals eat (cows chew slowly, sharks bite hard, whales open their mouth really wide, etc)
  • Have the toy offer food to the child
  • Feeding a toy when the food can “disappear is extra fun for kids (examples are the Feed the Woozle game and the Mr. Mouth Feed the Frog game.)

If your child consistently has issues with feeding, it may be a good idea to do food play activities away from the table and outside of meal times. If meals are a struggle, this can help your child to feel like the goal is not to eat, but it is simply to have fun.

Try to keep it fun and avoid saying things like “it’s so yummy ” or “just take one bite”. This puts pressure on your child and is not a good strategy long term. This can actually worsen picky eating.

When Should You Try Feeding Toys

You do not have to turn every meal into a game or play activity. You can decide when it would be helpful and when you are willing to try it. It may be the most beneficial on days your child is not very interested in eating or is being presented with a new food or food they have previously rejected. Making eating fun reduces anxiety and often makes children more willing to eat. Give it a try!

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