When eat meets shovel
August 19, 2012 7:46 PM   Subscribe

How do I get my toddler to stop shoveling in his food and take his time?

Toddler L has always been a good eater. We never had any failure to thrive issues and he is already pretty tall and muscular. But, the child eats like a bulldozer. He grabs large fistfuls of it and shoves it in his mouth only to then grab another fistful and shove that in his mouth. We are not concerned about his weight. He's proportional and very active.

We've tried taking away the food until he finishes swallowing the last shoveling, but this just makes his shriek out of frustration. How do we teach him portion control, taking small bites, eating slowly and enjoying his food?

Even when he's taking small bites initially say of a cracker, when he gets about halfway through, he starts to shovel it in. Neither I nor his dad eat this way, and he knows that he's not going to starve. So what is going on?
posted by Leezie to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think, having survived three toddlers, you just be grateful he eats. Most of them do reach a stage where their intake slows dramatically.

My recommendation is you wait a few months before you start working on those table manners. Even if you could do it now it would take a lot longer and be much more frustrating than it would be if you just let him grow up just a bit more.

The main thing at this point is to monitor him carefully and be careful what you give him (i.e. watching for choking hazards.) I imagine you already know what foods to wait on and what foods have to be cut properly.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:55 PM on August 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

Small (healthy) snacks in between meals are typically recommended and may help with the "rush of food" issues. The light snacks also ease the craving for food at meals, allowing mom and dad a little more peaceful time to eat as a family. - Kanaan Minks
posted by kanaan_minks at 7:57 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a matter of constant vigilance and reminding, they'll get it, and toddler-age is too young to make too big of a deal over it. Right now the very best thing you can do is modeling (and narrating as you do: "I'm going to take a small bite and chew it allllll up. Yum! Now I'm going to try a small bite of this!").

I have an eight year old who still needs to be constantly reminded to finish one bite before going onto the next, to put her fork down in between bites rather than setting up the next one. But she improves constantly.

When she was little, serving very small portions to start with and then giving seconds, thirds etc. helped.

Probably at least one of you did eat this way as a toddler, it's pretty normal and most people grow out of it.
posted by padraigin at 7:58 PM on August 19, 2012

I vote for "Remind him to take smaller bites and finish what's in his mouth, but wait it out." My toddler was a HUGE shoveler and stuffer, but he never choked, and not too long after he turned 3 he started eating more slowly and deliberately and with utensils and things like that. We did cut things into very small pieces and spread them out all over his plate or tray so he had to at least chase them down, and it slowed him down a little, but he still stuffed his cheeks like a chipmunk.

Everyone else's two-year-olds were at least playing with the spoons; mine was casting it aside and dipping his fingers directly in the applesauce to shovel it in faster, or else just drinking it from the bowl. I was like, "Oh, Lord, he's going to college eating like a Visigoth," but a year later he sits reasonably nicely at the table, uses his utensils, and is eating a mixed-green salad with stinky cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette on it while all the other 3-year-olds refuse cantaloupe as too weird for them and gag if offered lettuce.

The fact is he just loves food and he ate with all the gusto of a new person experiencing awesome new sensations and wanting to experience them AS MUCH AND AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. But now he's starting to absorb the social aspects of eating and he knows there will be another meal coming along when this one's over.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:12 PM on August 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

he knows that he's not going to starve

No, YOU know he's not going to starve.

If you are denying a child of anything, you're going to have to deal with some shrieking. You won't be able to take food away from him and have him not shriek like he's a mature adult, because he's not and that's unreasonable. However, what you CAN do is show him that his shrieking is not going to get him his food back - it won't come back until he stops shrieking.

I suggest small, more frequent meals may help, so they don't come to the table "starving" as well as recognizing your toddler is not an adult. While it's good to teach manners early, others will not hold him to adult standards of manners, so if you're not concerned about his weight, maybe relax a bit?
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:13 PM on August 19, 2012

How old is your toddler? Personally, I'd err on the side of letting the kid be a possibly gobbly, messy toddler until they are old enough to reason about such things. As in, I wouldn't sweat it much before they were four and soon to be in kindergarten. Just a sweet verbal "hey there, fella, slow down", so they become aware they can, rather than worrying that are not eating the way their parents do, yet.

I'd also try more frequent small meals, in case this is a situation of ravenous hunger.
posted by zippy at 8:18 PM on August 19, 2012

My youngest was 9.5 pounds at birth and at age 18 months he wore the same size clothes as his 4 year old brother. My sister called him a two-fisted eater. I think he did this while growing, due to actual hunger. I did nothing about it. It never crossed my mind that I should. He is now 22 and eats like a priss.

Given your description of the child's size, he may just be genuinely very hungry due to ongoing growth.
posted by Michele in California at 8:24 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

We are still going with the reminders - not too much, finish the first mouthful, chew etc. It's exacerbated by my own personal tendencies to eat like a chipmunk. But she is getting there, it's just months and months of reminders.

So just like every other aspect of parenting a toddler...
posted by geek anachronism at 8:26 PM on August 19, 2012

How old is Toddler L?

My parents started imparting table manners and graceful eating habits around three, I think? Definitely within my memory, so it couldn't have been much before then.

If he is a lot younger than that age, I would let him be unless you're worried about him choking (and then I would address it as a choking risk, not as "portion control" or the like).

If he is three or older, Nthing lots of reminders. "L, please chew your food properly." "L, please don't take such huge bites." "L, slow down."

Still, I think this is mostly just a preamble. Probably what will really do it is that L will go to school, and some other kid will say, "L, why do you eat like a weirdo?" or "L, that's gross! Chew with your mouth closed!" And L will look around and see how everyone else eats, and he will adapt accordingly.
posted by Sara C. at 8:37 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Toddlers are relatively impatient and they have poor impulse control. I agree about snacks, but I'd also say that a toddler shrieking isn't necessarily a good reason for not doing something. If it's a genuine safety hazard, let him shriek. Make sure he's not starving when you do it, but yeah, it's okay if he's a bit upset or uncomfortable. Being a toddler sucks sometimes and they will express that, it doesn't mean you're necessarily doing anything wrong.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:13 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ha! I'm TWENTY-FIVE and I have to remind myself to finish a bite entirely before taking the next one! I don't take big 'fistfuls' though, usually use the silverware ;-)

It's a good habit for various reasons but probably one that is learned better at an age of reason. Frequent snacks that are limited in size, and food that is limited in amount, probably helps too - perhaps give him a plate with a few bites of food on it, let him finish it, put a few more bits of food on. Taking food away is a sore subject for animals of all sorts - I imagine a hungry toddler would be little different. But my experience with toddlers is SO slim that you're welcome to disregard my thoughts entirely!
posted by Lady Li at 10:25 PM on August 19, 2012

My mother is a childcare provider of children around this age. What works for her with toddlers and small children who shovel their food in their mouths is to give them appropriate silverware (all children ages 2 and up can definitely use spoons), dish out small portions, tell them to "take little bites", and then ask them if they want more food if/when they follow the small bite rule and eat ALL of their previous portion. Taking food away doesn't really work and just aggravates toddlers and young children.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 11:17 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm with St. Alia here. Count it among your real, true, and fantastic blessings that you've got a food appreciator there. You'll make him into a little gourmet before age five if you give him quality food, and slooowly teach him that people eat with style.
posted by Namlit at 12:16 AM on August 20, 2012

I'm a twin, and my mom loves to tell stories about sitting my twin brother and i in side-by-side high chairs when feeding us, and telling tales of our wildly different eating styles. (It's a cute parental anecdote to reinforce the whole 'holy cow my twins are really different from each other' thing.) Anyhoo, point is, my brother sloooooowly meditatively ate and licked and observed, while gobbled and talked and grabbed. And then in the end, we both aged into children/teens/adults with completely normal (nay, good!) eating habits and attitudes towards food.

In other words: toddlers are weird and varied with eating! don't worry, it'll all work out!
posted by Kololo at 12:21 AM on August 20, 2012

Seconding the silverware....get him a special set and make a big deal of using it like a big boy! Other than that, don't sweat it too much...he'll grow out of it...
posted by pearlybob at 4:27 AM on August 20, 2012

Reading these answers, skylitdrawl is totally right. It feels way worse to a toddler (and a grownup) to have something taken away. Better to give it to them in little bits in the first place.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:06 AM on August 20, 2012

Hi, I'm an adult shoveler. I never grew out of it. What I did learn, though, (and fairly early on in life) is that other people don't like to see it. So I don't do it in public, and I try not to do it too much around family. But in private, I shovel-shovel-shovel. It's just how I prefer to eat.

I'm in the remind-him-to-slow-down camp, and make sure he knows the different levels of appropriate behavior when by himself/with others. Maybe do some "practice meals" out at a restaurant where he gets to act like a grown up. Make it a fancy right of passage thing.
posted by phunniemee at 10:27 AM on August 20, 2012

Shrieking is okay. Give him a little. When he shrieks for more, wait it out a little bit before you provide more (ideally until he stops shrieking for a bit.) Over time he'll realize that the food will come sooner or later, and sooner when he doesn't shriek. You can focus on helping him use spoons and forks as well, rather than grabbing with his hands, and that will slow him down (plus get him tons of attention at first, as you help him hold things; kids love that.)
posted by davejay at 1:13 PM on August 20, 2012

Our son has autism and we got this advice from his occupational therapist to help keep him from gulping down his drink before eating his food....

Divide a paper plate into sections. We started with 3, but for a toddler 2 sections might be enough. I even numbered the sections on a paper plate when we started.

Then, we told him he had to eat one bite from each section and then he could have a sip of the drink. At first we could only put a tiny bit in the cup, but then gradually he got better at the self control. For you, maybe you only put out 2 bites of eat food at a time so the child can't gobble too much.

Being able to make it fun like a game improved the dinner dynamic dramatically! We just reminded him to eat #1, then #2, etc, then a sip!

This strategy was also helpful in getting him to taste non-preferred foods. We'd put a new food in one of the 3 sections, and then he would see it was only one bite at a time and a tiny portion of his plate that he didn't love. He would much more willingly try foods since he knew the process.

Maybe for a toddler, you could say 1, 2, clap your hands. Or 1, 2 make an animal noise (which would require chewing and swallowing first).

Good luck!
posted by Mrs_Eep at 6:36 PM on September 3, 2012

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