Eating with your toddler doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are three tips to avoid toddler food battles during meal times.
“Thank you,” my toddler said, handing me his empty plate. “Want to get down and play.”
Wow, I thought. He didn’t ask for more food. It worked!
My toddler loves eating that he asks for more food even after we’ve given him a huge portion size. Couple this with his crying debacles when we take him down from the high chair, eating time had become a war zone.
Unless I want him to be a champion buffet eater, a food hoarder or a diet freak, we needed to change things fast.
3 tips to avoid toddler food battles
Fortunately we did, using these three tips.
Tip #1: Let him eat unassisted
In the past, my husband and I would pierce or scoop our toddler’s food before handing him the utensil. Or, we would tear a slice of bread into bite-size pieces and toss it in front of him at regular intervals.
If you think that this is a wee bit like bird feeding, sadly you’re not alone. But handing (or tossing) him his food was easier, cleaner, and enabled us to watch his pace. Considering that he would eat so fast and ask for more, we didn’t see an easy way out.
But we were deciding when he would have his next bite, or what food he wants to try next. Or even whether he should have a bite at all.
And so my toddler became a passive eater, eating at our discretion, not his. Maybe he acts up at mealtimes because he’s under our control over something as basic as eating.
We’ve changed things up. Now he scoops his own risotto, pierces his own pineapple and grabs the pancakes with his own hands.
I’ve had to keep my grimaces to myself when he’d splat yet another spoonful of spinach soup all over his sleeve. But at least he seems happy being an equal participant at the dinner table.
Tip #2: Present all the food at once
Our son loves fruit. Given the choice between fruit and a main meal, he will gobble up the fruit before even laying eyes on the rest.
“Let’s bring out the main meal first,” we conspired. “He’ll think that that’s all he’s eating, and will finish the whole thing. Then when he’s done, we can bring out his fruit. Mwahahahaha.”
And it seemed to work: my toddler finished the chicken and rice completely before asking for more. “Here’s your fruit!” we’d proclaim, smugly thinking that we had just tricked him into eating his main meal first.
Then we got not-so-smug when he asked for more after he finished the fruit. And after he finished the veggies. And after he finished the bread. Until eventually he just tricked us into giving him way more food than we had intended or wanted.
Our kitchen was like a seven-course restaurant. He probably thought he had the whole kitchen at his disposal. And without a clear amount of food in front of him, he just kept asking for more.
So now I take the opposite approach. After sitting him at the table, I gave him everything we wanted him to eat all at once. Salmon patties, a slice of bread and a bowl of blueberries. Not surprisingly, he turned to the blueberries first and grabbed a few.
“Great,” I thought dejectedly. “He’s just going to finish all the blueberries.”
But with just a few reminders to eat the rest, he ended up alternating and eating from all three foods! And he not only refrained from asking for more, he held up his empty bowl and handed it to me saying, “All done, thank you.” Wow.
Tip #3: Let him linger at the dining table
Most of the crying happened when it was time to get down from the high chair. After our toddler had just put the last of the sweet potatoes into his mouth, we’d thrust his cup to him, say, “Yay! All done!” and proceed with taking him down in lightning speed.
We thought if given more time at the table, he’d ask for more food, so we wanted him down as fast as possible. “Get him down while he’s distracted,” we thought. Instead, our son would cling to the table, crying, “Stay! Want to eat!”
Then my husband said, “You and I like to sit and chat at the table, even if there’s no food left in front of us.” Maybe our toddler also enjoyed sitting here with us, even without food.
Now, we let him linger at the table. If it looks like he’s ready to leave the table, I help him get down from his high chair. Otherwise we’ll talk, and I’ll mention that he could tell me if he wants to stay or go. And usually he’ll say the miracle words: “Want to get down and play.”
A truce is called
I’ve let go of control, allowed more mess, and listened to my toddler. And through that, I was able to reap more compliance from him than what we had been currently doing. And he feels like an equal, active participant at the dinner table, able to enjoy a meal and our company.
Maybe that’s all he wanted all along.
Get more tips about toddler food battles:
- 13 Children’s Books about Food
- How to Raise Kids Who Want to Eat Healthy
- Restaurant Etiquette: 6 Tips for Well-Behaved Kids
- How to Get Rid of Picky Eating Once and For All
- How to Improve Children’s Table Manners
Tell me in the comments: How do you handle toddler food battles in your home? Do you have additional tips I could try to prevent any food flare-ups? What has worked for your kids? What hasn’t?
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