How to create the best toddler feeding schedule for mealtime success

By Penelope Henderson, MSc, RNutr/ 05/08/2024
happy girl eating lunch at the table

Mealtimes can often be a challenging experience when it comes to feeding toddlers. Creating a structured and consistent toddler feeding schedule can make mealtimes more enjoyable for both parents and little ones. 

In this blog, I will discuss how to create the best toddler feeding schedule to promote healthy eating habits, why it is so important and how it will ensure mealtime success. From timing meals and snacks to customizing it, I will provide practical tips and strategies for establishing a routine that works for your family.

What is a feeding schedule?

A feeding schedule also known as a mealtime routine is simply a schedule for meals and snacks. This can include what to do pre-meals, during meals and end of meals. A routine that is set for every meal and snack that is ideally at the same time so it is consistent. Kids then learn what to expect on a daily basis. 

Why is it important to have a toddler feeding schedule?

There are three main reasons why it is important to have a feeding schedule. These include security for your child, managing their appetite and learning rituals like setting up the table, manners and clearing away. 

  • Security/consistency 

This means eating at the same time everyday, at the same place with the same rules. Having this consistency in place provides security for your child, everyone knows what to expect so become alot calmer and relaxed at mealtimes. 

  • Appetite regulation 

A toddler feeding schedule helps them to regulate their appetite so they are coming to the table hungry and ready to eat. By providing regular meal and snack times that are timed appropriately this means they are nourished throughout the day and not constantly asking for snacks. 

  • Learning 

Learning what to expect and learning behaviors like washing hands and doing little jobs like laying the table and clearing away is all good for taking responsibility and having discipline early on. 

  • Less likely to be picky eater

If they are hungry at mealtimes then they are likely to eat more and get what they need. 

From stressed to relaxed:  4 ways to get your child to try new foods without feeling frustrated

How do I set a schedule for toddlers?

To set up a schedule you need to follow the following rules to make it work:

  • Allow 2 – 3 hours apart from meals and snacks
  • Give no more than 6 meals and snacks a day
  • Only allow water or diluted squash between meals. Milky drinks can fill them up too much.
  • Once you have a routine you need to stick to it. 

To set a feeding schedule up, start by working out what time you typically wake up and get up. Then start with the time you want to have breakfast. Add on spacing of 2 – 3hrs to complete snacks and further mealtimes. 

Think about what else may be included in your typical day like naps or activities and when these occur so you can arrange feeding times around these too. 

What is a good feeding schedule for a 2 year old?

Here is an example of how a feeding schedule for toddlers may look: typically for a 2 – 4 year old.

toddler feeding schedule example showing times for meals and snacks through one day

How often do you feed a toddler ?

It is recommended that children have 3 meals and 2 – 3 snacks a day. This is a guide and obviously all children vary with their appetites. Some children will not even need 2 snacks, it really depends on your child. 

How long between meals for toddlers?

The ideal is 2- 3 hours between snacks and meals to ensure they are having some time to start feeling hungry. It is important toddlers learn to sense their hunger and fullness cues so that they can regulate themselves and eat appropriate amounts at mealtimes. Otherwise they can end up constantly snacking to fill the gaps. 

Do I have to follow the feeding schedule exactly for my toddler?

No, not exactly to the minute. I know our day to day lives change with activities and things going on but we generally wake up at a set time so you can work from there. 

You can be a little flexible with timings but you don’t want to move away from the times too much or otherwise it will not be a schedule or routine anymore. 

It is important to keep to a schedule. As they grow older and bedtimes etc change you get slightly adjust it. 

What does a mealtime look like?

Toddler mealtimes should also include a little routine to help get toddlers to the table more easily. I like to think of this in four stages (pre-meal warning, pre-meal activity, the mealtime itself and clear away). 

4 stages of a mealtime routine -pre meal warning, pre meal activity, mealtime and clear away

1. Pre-meal warning

Often mealtime stress begins with being asked to come and eat when your child is happily playing or engaging in some activity they don’t want to leave. However if you give them a warning of say 5, 10 minutes or whatever to say dinner will be ready then. It gives them time to turn the television off, put some toys away and be ready for dinner. 

If they do become upset at being asked to turn the television off or stop what they are doing then they have 5 – 10 mins to calm down before the meal begins. 

a clock with a bell lying on a plate with a knife and fork either side

2. Pre-meal activity

This could be washing hands, laying the table, helping to get the food on the table or laying plates out. 

They could also be involved in a little preparation of the food. Something very simple like mixing a salad, chopping some raw veggies or putting some seeds in a bowl or something to accompany it. 

3. Mealtime

Having the time set about the same time every day. Even snack times so you know these are being spaced out and they are not constantly asking when the next meal/snack will be. 

How much should a toddler eat?

Be guided by how much they can eat, which will vary from day to day. If you are unsure discover my my guide to portion sizes for 1 – 4 years and 5 – 11 year olds

Length of mealtime

An appropriate length of time that they can sit down and eat for. For younger children this is likely to only be 5 -10 mins but for 5 years upwards about 20 mins. There is no point in making them sit for a long period of time as they will eat what they want in that period of time. 

4. Finishing mealtimes/clear away

Taking plates away, helping to load the dishes or do some washing up. 

boy washing up some dishes

Tip – If your child is young or a visual learner than having some visual cards with the pictures and or words can help create the understanding and predictability of knowing what steps/routine to follow. 

What is a positive mealtime environment?

A positive mealtime environment is one where everyone knows what to expect, where they are eating, what they are eating and happy to come to the table. If you also set some ground rules like about devices and not having them at the table then everyone is following the rules and no arguments. Here are some ways to create positive mealtimes.

Make it a fun and social time

Mealtimes should be enjoyable and if you have a fussy eater then its easy to get stressed prior to mealtimes knowing they are going to be difficult. Have a focus on one thing you can chat about like a favorite tv program, something fun they have enjoyed that day etc.

Novelty cups, plates, bowls etc

Having these for your child may help to settle them knowing they have their favourite plate or mug. 

Take the focus off fussy eating behaviour

If they start to be difficult around what’s served like pushing food away, meltdowns, etc. Don’t create a battle but let them know this is what’s for dinner and you don’t have to eat it however next meal will be at zxy.

Also you can divert unwanted behaviour away by focusing on other questions like saying ‘what does it smell like, what’s the colour, how is this different from what you normally have?, what other foods do you like of the same colour. 

For further suggestions on what to say check out: 11 transformative phrases to banish fussy eating for good

Eat together where possible

Creates connection and builds your relationship with your child whilst you’re eating. If its difficult to eat at earlier times with your child then even taking a small amount of the same food to your place will help to encourage them to eat too. 

Research shows that children will eat more fruit and vegetables if they are watching adults eating these foods (1). 

Be realistic

Things don’t always go to plan and be realistic that things can change and meals you have made which you think they will eat are rejected. By staying calm and sticking to your rules about meals and having something safe for them to eat you know they will eat something. 

Praise for positive mealtimes 

Such as praise for manners, sitting at table nicely, touching food, tying food etc. Be wise with your praise though and don’t make it into a big thing. 

If you would like to know more steps to mealtime success then I have the perfect guide for you called : 6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes.

Do you have a mealtime routine? if so, what works for your family? comment below.

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MEET THE AUTHOR
Author Penelope Henderson

Hi I’m Penelope Henderson RNutr Registered Nutritionist specialising in children’s nutrition and responsive feeding therapy.

I am a mum of 2, with over 15 years of experience in nutrition. I support parents to feel confident in how and what to feed their child. I hope you find my recipes and nutrition posts useful, so you can enjoy stress free cooking and mealtimes.

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