Strategies for Distracted Eaters

Toddlers can be easily distracted, especially during mealtime when they would rather be playing than learning about new foods. When children are distracted and not eating, the meal can quickly shift to a battle with arguing, negotiating and disciplining. In order to make mealtime more successful, here are some tips to help distracted eaters.

In my experience of providing feeding therapy for the past 20+ years, I have identified two types of Distracted Eaters:

Eaters Distracted by External Stimuli: This is the little tot that has to have the TV or iPad on in order to eat. Or, if you get a phone call or have company swing by the house, their environment is so disrupted that they don't eat. Playing with their utensils or throwing their plate or food may distract this toddler.

Eaters Distracted by Internal Stimuli: This little one is distracted by their own sensory issues (itchy, tired, cold, hot, having foods not touch, etc.) or they consistently have to go to the bathroom when it’s time to eat. These kiddos also may be distracted by their own thoughts and internal feelings or may daydream / prefer to talk instead of eating.

Here are some fun strategies to help keep your child focused on their plate and the food you have presented:

Markers: I like to use the Happy Mat when using markers because of the extra space the placemat provides. The silicone placemat can be used to write your kiddo’s name, say “good morning” or “I love you” OR you can use arrows to label the fun foods in front of them (as pictured!). I love using this technique in feeding therapy and kids adore having their mat decorated. They have even more fun erasing the markings with their napkin at the end of the meal! This strategy will keep your kiddo focused on what is in front of them rather than outside stimuli. Note - you can use dry erase markers, food safe markers or Wishy Washy markers on all of ezpz products (but if you use permanent markers…it’s permanent!).

Food Art: At ezpz we feel like our mats are an amazingly easy canvas for quick food art. We also like to decorate the sides of the mat with the food theme you are creating. One quick trick for food art is to use cookie cutters to make fruits and veggies more appealing. Cookie cutters also allow you to serve a small sweet treat without all the sugar of a full serving. In the photo, we have served small bites of a fruit roll-up using cookie cutters. You can get additional inspiration and tips on making simple food art from our book: Making Mealtime ezpz: Fun Ways to Fill the Happy Mat!

Routines: Implementing a routine that you stick to before each meal can be very effective. For example, prior to the meal your child can: 1. Go to the bathroom to relieve their bladder and wash their hands 2. Turn off their iPad or remove any toys from the table 3. Make sure they are warm or cool enough (take off a jacket, add a bib or change clothing). You should also have a routine for yourself as well, e.g., turn your cell phone off or on mute, turn the TV and radio off and/or utilize an ‘electronic basket’ where everyone can place their gadgets during family mealtime. Also make sure that you have all the necessary condiments, utensils and napkins on hand. I know it can be difficult, but try to take 10 minutes to sit with your child and eat some of the same foods. Think of some conversational starters so that your children will stay at the table a little longer and learn that mealtime is a fun and social occasion!

What are some ways you minimize internal or external distractions during mealtime in your home? We would love to hear your tips! Comment below or send us pictures using the hashtags #ezpzfun #myezpzmat. 

Dawn Winkelmann, M.S, CCC-SLP


Dawn Winkelmann, a.k.a “Ms. Dawn”, has treated thousands of kids across the globe by helping families overcome picky eating stages and food refusals, while adding new foods into their diet. Her high success rate is attributed to Ms. Dawn bringing her education, experience, sense of humor and her favorite feeding products to the family dinner table.

You will find Ms. Dawn’s expert feeding advice to be positive and fun for the entire family! She adapts complicated feeding/swallowing research and makes it practical and easy for parents! Get ready to learn the science behind your favorite feeding products and ways to bring happy family mealtimes back!