It's no surprise that it takes time for our little ones to learn to eat, but it might come as a surprise that it can take a fair amount of time for toddlers to be able to handle certain textures. And because there's such a wide range of normalcy on this topic, it can feel isolating when your kiddo won't touch foods like meat or bread...and all of their little friends are scarfing it down.
With my first child, I hardly remember experiencing any texture challenges. She loved meat right from the start and took to almost everything I introduced to her with gusto. And while it's quite possible that some of the specifics have been lost in my memory, I do know that I was completely caught off guard when baby number two struggled more with certain foods. To this day, she still doesn't love meat and hardly eats it unless it's a big hunk she can suck on or super (and I mean super) moist shredded chicken. Until she was 16 month old, she didn't seem to care for anything with the texture of a muffin and I have to be careful with leftover pancakes since if they aren't warm and soft, they'll get tossed overboard from the highchair. And the week she turned 17 months was the first time she could actually chew and swallow tiny cubes of very lightly toasted bread.
None of this, in itself, is a big deal. But when you're trying to feed your little one a range of healthy foods, eliminating entire food groups like bread and meat can make that feel almost impossible. To help explain what's normal (and what's not), and some things you can expect as your younger toddler gradually learns to handle more complex textures, I reached out to Jenny McGlothlin, one of the author's of Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating.
What are some common texture challenges (or foods with tricky textures) when feeding toddlers?
"Mixed textures are difficult for toddlers who are just learning how to manage the manipulation of one texture. Casseroles, vegetable soup, etc. can overwhelm them and they may spit out pieces of things they don't know what do with. Deconstructing mixed foods (separating out the ingredients from a stew/soup/casserole) can reduce the oral motor load and also allow your toddler to approach each item separately.
Many toddlers have trouble with very sticky foods such as mashed potatoes or peanut butter. You might see gagging or holding the mouth open, as the food coats their tongue. Thinning these foods out (with milk for potatoes, honey or jam for PB) can help them manage these foods and swallow them more successfully."
If, say, your toddler doesn't like the texture of bread or bready things like muffins, what are some ways to ease them into the texture without stressing them out?
"Introduce more firm textures like crackers or shortbread as a way to introduce this type of food. These might be easier to manage for a child who is looking for more input than a soft bread can provide. Serve bread or muffins or whatever other food item you are presenting as part of a meal, family-style, so your child can see the food, see you eating the food, and perhaps engage with the food on their own terms. Crumbling a muffin on your plate is great fun!
What's the deal with toddlers not liking meat—and what are some easier-to-eat meats that toddlers tend to do better with?
"Meat is a difficult texture to chew and takes a lot of work (and more time) from a strength standpoint, and children are going to do whatever is easiest! If your child avoids meat or chews and then spits them out, don't despair—keep presenting them alongside foods they enjoy eating. Soft meats such as fish (salmon is often a favorite), crockpot roast or brisket shredded, and minced chicken salad are all good ones to try."
By what age do these early texture difficulties tend to resolve?
"Every child is different and has their own preferences, and some children with texture sensitivities can hold on to their challenges into elementary school. Most toddlers go through a picky, neophobic* stage beginning around 14-16 months, and lasting until around age 5. Texture preferences can change! Also, many children need to have crunchy foods with every meal in order for their sensory system to function at the most alert level, so be sure to include those foods if your child appears to be a sensory seeker." *Neophobic is common phase in toddlerhood of refusing and avoiding new foods.
What are the signs of a feeding issue that might need professional attention?
"Child regularly gags or vomits at each meal (with consideration for transitions to textured food).
Child is not eating enough in terms of quantity or variety to support healthy emotional, physical or social development. Parent reports significantly different mealtime behaviors than you see at school. Child isn’t chewing well, spits out food after chewing, or can’t keep food in their mouth. Child swallows food whole. (Here's how to tell if your child isn't chewing: Child younger than 3, but “chews” with mouth closed; Child chokes or gags while eating; Child winces during swallowing; You can identify whole pieces of food in diaper or vomit; Child is constipated; Child fails to maintain weight despite eating age-appropriate amounts of food; Child stuffs mouth full of food while eating and often needs reminders to slow down and take smaller bites."
Just hearing more about what's normal makes me feel so much better, so I hope this helps any concerns you have about textures. If you still have questions, let me know and I'll find the answers for you!
If you want to read more about common and less common feeding issues, I highly recommend Jenny's book Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating.