HomeChildren's HealthMealtime strategies, activities and recipe ideas for toddlers - CHOC

Mealtime strategies, activities and recipe ideas for toddlers – CHOC

By Aly Ramirez, clinical dietitian at CHOC

For parents of toddlers, ages 1 to 3 years, mealtimes may be a challenge. Several developmental changes are occurring in toddlers at this time: they are striving for independence and control; their growth rate slows down; and their appetite often decreases.

These changes can make it difficult for young children to focus on eating their meals during mealtimes. Because of this, it’s important for parents to provide structure and set limits for the toddler. The following are suggestions to help manage mealtimes so that your toddler gets the nutrition they need.

Mealtime tips for parents of toddlers

  • Avoid battles over food. Parents get to choose the food and beverages served and where the meal takes place.
  • Provide consistent meals and snacks.
  • Be flexible with food acceptance, as toddlers are often reluctant to try new things. If your toddler refuses food item, don’t make a big deal out of it and try again in a few days or weeks.
  • Be realistic with your expectations of how much your child can eat. Portion size should be about one-fourth the size of an adult portion.
  • Limit your child’s juice intake; encourage whole fruit instead.
  • Resist offering dessert as a reward. Try serving it with the rest of the meal.
  • Make sure meals are easy for your toddler to eat:
    • Cut food into bite-size pieces.
    • Make some foods soft and moist.
    • Serve foods near room temperature.
    • Use ground meat instead of steak or chops.
    • Have your child use a child-size spoon and fork with dull prongs.
    • Seat your child at a comfortable height in a secure chair.
  • Prevent choking by:
    • Slowly introducing more difficult-to-chew foods.
    • Avoid foods that are hard to chew and/or swallow such as nuts, raw carrots, gum drops, jellybeans and peanut butter (served by itself).
    • Modifying high-risk foods by cutting hot dogs in quarters, cutting grapes in quarters and cooking carrots until soft.
    • Always supervise your child when they are eating.
    • Keep your child seated while eating.

Physical activity ideas for toddlers

Most toddlers are naturally active and often walk, run, kick and throw, so it’s vital to provide them with plenty of opportunities to learn and hone in on these motor skills while using that natural energy.

Physical activities for toddlers should use gross motor skills, which means using their major muscles in body parts like their legs and arms to do things like run, jump, spin and climb. Toddlers are just beginning to learn these movements, so give children plenty of practice through physical games and activities.

If you need physical development and active play ideas for toddlers in your care, consider the following activities:

Row, row, row your boat

This indoor physical activity is great for toddlers’ physical development and socialization with no equipment necessary. In this exercise, children sit facing a partner with feet touching. They hold hands and lean forward and backward while singing the classic, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Toss balls in a basket

Give toddlers foam or rubber balls to roll back and forth with a partner. Older toddlers can toss the balls into a basket. During this activity, exercise caution with younger children who might bite foam balls. Avoid small balls that toddlers could put in their mouths and swallow.

Imitate animals

While on their hands and knees, toddlers move, stretch and play like animals. They can hop like a frog or waddle like a penguin. They can arch their backs, roll on their backs, reach as high as they can and walk on all fours. Choose a variety of animals and movements to keep children engaged and use their whole bodies to stay active.

Follow the leader

Stand in front of the children and tell them to watch you carefully and copy your moves. Touch your nose, hop on both feet, stomp in a circle or crawl on all fours. Choose simple actions and use large motor activities.

Hit the balloon

Encourage toddlers to keep a balloon from touching the ground by hitting it with their hands. You can also place an item between two children, such as a chair or pillow, and instruct them to hit the balloon over the barrier to the other child. Chasing balloons allows children to run, zigzag and hop to keep up with the object while maintaining their balance.

Recipe ideas for toddlers

Recipe and image courtesy of Baby Foodie

Blueberry oatmeal

Yield: 6 small baby or toddler servings, 4 kids or adult servings.


2 cups water or milk of choice
1 cup old fashioned oats
1/2 cup frozen blueberries (see notes)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1-2 tbsp maple syrup, coconut sugar or brown sugar (optional)

  1. In a medium saucepan, bring the water or milk to a boil over medium-high heat.
  2. Add in the oats, blueberries, vanilla extract, cinnamon and sweetener (if using) and stir. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 8-10 minutes or until the water is absorbed, stirring often.
Recipe and image courtesy of Baby Foodie

Pesto rainbow pizza

Yield: 4 English muffin pizzas


2 English muffins cut in half (pre-made mini pizza crusts or bagels work as well)
1/3 cup pesto, pre-made or homemade
1/4 cup each red, orange and yellow peppers, finely chopped
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella or Italian cheese blend

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Taking one half of an English muffin, spread roughly 2 tablespoons of pesto on top and then sprinkle with cheese. Taking the peppers, make a small rainbow or any design you would like on top of the cheese.
  3. Repeat with all of the English muffins.
  4. Place the topped English muffins onto a baking sheet, and bake for 8-10 minutes, then heat oven to broil and bake for an additional 3-5 minutes or until cheese is golden brown and bubbly.

Add More Veggies: For even more veggie power – you can stir any green baby food puree into the pesto. You can also take a store-bought or homemade pesto and add it to a blender or food processor along with 1-2 huge handfuls of spinach or kale, pulse until blended.

For more on CHOC’s clinical nutrition program



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