Staying Calm During Meals With A Toddler

Toddler meals are tough. Picky eating, power struggles. Here's how to cope.

Is feeding a toddler harder than you thought it would be? Picky eating, refusing foods, power struggles. Doesn’t your kiddo know you’re just trying to help him eat healthy food so he can grow?

I honestly thought feeding kids was going to be easy. Working as a dietitian before I had kids of my own, I certainly told enough parents the relatively simple guidelines. Don’t pressure them at the table, don’t have an agenda, just make a variety of healthy foods available then back off.

I really thought the problem was that these poor parents just hadn’t been told. Hadn’t been told how simple it is. That they didn’t have to micromanage, kids will naturally eat what they need, given the opportunity.

I firmly believe in this advice. But before I had my own independence-craving toddler, I didn’t know what it would look like. I didn’t know what resistance would feel like. I didn’t know that “this works” doesn’t mean “it works instantaneously every time.” That results are gradual; they might not be noticeable until months or later. I expected that a little. But what I DID NOT expect was my own emotional reactions to perfectly normal kid eating behavior. Irritation. Frustration. Exasperation. Anger, even.

I don’t have an extreme picky eater or an underweight kiddo. He’s normal. Messy, but normal. Pickier than he was as a baby, as most toddlers are. Saying no to most vegetables. Reluctant to try new things. The usual. But I didn’t know how wrapped up I would get it what he ate or did not eat. I didn’t know how much I would cringe when I reflected on a meal, realizing how hard I had tried to get him to eat something. Cringing both for the pointlessness of it, and for how contrary I was acting to my ideals of not trying to control his eating.

I didn’t realize how perfectly I thought he would eat. I somehow expect him to just accept “no” when he begs for a granola bar that I didn’t offer at this meal (even though I myself just downed three four of them while writing this post… but hey, he doesn’t know that and I can’t be responsible for my appetite while nursing…). I expect him to agree to take a bite of every food and discover he likes it after all. Any time he refuses a food, it feels like an apocalyptic blow to my fantasy of raising a perfect eater, who wants to fill up on vegetables, doesn’t care about sweets, thinks mom is the best cook ever and would never rudely demand a cheese wrap instead of the glorious, beautiful balanced meal in front of him.

Fantasy over, now I am prone to overreact and start trying tactic after tactic to get him to eat specific foods… then get frustrated when nothing works. Because of course it doesn’t. It’s not my job to decide what he eats. Division of responsibility, right?

So it often comes down to, “How do I stay calm about all of it and back the heck off?” Well, I’m working on it. If you are finding yourself in a similarly emotion-laden mealtime situation, consider the following tips:

Center yourself before the meal.

Take a little time to practice some mindfulness. In the rush to get food on the table and into tummies, this can easily get lost. Take a moment, notice the food. How it looks and smells. And notice those beautiful children that are about to eat. Seriously, how beautiful are they, can you even believe it?

Remind yourself to think long term.

Remind yourself that they don’t have to eat it today. You have to really believe this. They might not be eating the food, but they are seeing it (and seeing you eat it), smelling it, and maybe even touching or tasting. Let them move at their own pace. Your little person is learning what they like, what they don’t, when they’ve had enough and when they want more.

Toddler picking apart his food? Call it a success, he's getting exposure to all the parts.
He took apart the sandwich and just ate the meat, but the miracle was that he wanted the spinach on it to begin with.
Serve meals family style.

Bring serving dishes to the table. Make sure anything you plan to offer is there (and necessities like napkins, water, etc), so you don’t have to be popping up and down during the meal which is super distracting for you and your kiddo. Plus it’s much easier to politely decline requests for alternative foods that aren’t at the table when you’re not up for other things. I’ll admit that I am terrible at this. I need to plan ahead better. As a first step, I sometimes do a part-way family style, where I’ll plate the meal ahead of time but have 1-2 items on the table as well.

Watch yourself for manipulative behavior.

Realize when you are subtly or not-so-subtly trying to manipulate your kid into eating

  • “Just one bite of this food before that food.”
  • “Clean your plate.”
  • “Mmmm, this is pretty good, I think you’ll like it, come on just give it a try, you’ll like it.”
  • “Your brother is eating all of his.”
  • Etc.

When you hear these coming out of your mouth, just pause. Remember your goals. You want them to have a positive outlook on all foods, and not just eat it to please you.

See your emotions.

Practice noticing you emotions, notice when you get irritated. Your kids notice it too, and it decreases the likelihood that they’re going to want to eat what you are pushing. Ideally, you’ll be able to notice it before it goes too far and the whole meal feels like a disappointment or catastrophe.

Breathe.

Deeply. Maybe close your eyes for a second while you do it. (This is a good tip for most toddler-related struggles you encounter.) Once you notice things going south, this can get you back on track.

Have a mantra.

Repeat a key phrase or two to yourself, and of course the quintessential “you don’t have to eat it” to your kiddo. Phrases for you might be

  • “My goal is not to control.” (rhyming is clever!)
  • “Think long term.”
  • “He decides whether to eat it.”
  • “I did my job, he’ll do his.”
  • “She’s just learning.”
Watch for power struggles.

You’ll be able to get a sense (not 100% accurate but helpful enough) of when a refusal is about control, and when it’s about fear/timidness around the food items. These can be intertwined, and pressure DOES NOT HELP — just imagine a time you were hesitant about something, how did it feel when someone insisted you do it and that it was no big deal? What was hesitation can turn into full-on battle. You may need a different calm-down/reminder phrase for yourself power struggles vs fears. I know I have an easier time being compassionate when my toddler is wary of a new food vs. refusing something he’s eaten just fine previously. Read this very helpful article that can help you see struggles from the kiddo’s side.

Change your focus.

Focus on things other than who is and is not eating what. Have fun, keep the mood light. Work on conversation skills. If they’re on the younger side of toddler, they probably can’t hold up their end yet but it’ll come. Tell stories or talk them through what you did that day or recently. It’s fun to learn what’s on their minds. For weeks (months?) after a road trip my 2-year-old would ask “Mommy say about the hotels!” If they are a little older, ask them questions or play simple word games. Enjoy your family!

 

So there you have it. Keeping your cool during meals with a toddler will always be a work in progress. Picky eating and food refusals are frustrating, but par for the course. Know that by modeling a calm, light attitude at the table, you’re setting them up for lifelong positive eating experiences.

Have you found that your mealtime emotions affect your family’s eating? Comment below!

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Author: Lisa

Hi, I’m Lisa. Dietitian, runner at heart, and most importantly mom of two amazing little boys. I want to raise a family that nourishes itself well – through food, movement, and continuous learning, and I want to help you do the same!

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