Family Mealtime Frustration

This time of year families tend to focus on feasting. We eat to celebrate, we share a meal when we get together with family and friends, and sometimes we eat just because we are so cold!

With all of this eating happening around us, it can be troubling to have a toddler who is in the habit of refusing to eat! However, it is common during the toddler years to become more selective and opinionated about food. What can a parent do? The early childhood staff of Hopkins Public Schools would like to share some tips and ideas to help your family meal-times feel fun – not frustrated.

It is helpful to remember that toddler behavior is often erratic, so it isn’t surprising that your young child will like a food one day and decide she doesn’t like it the next. The power struggle that erupts around food is often due to the toddler’s desire to assert her independence, not because she has any real or lasting opinion about the food on the table. The more we see their whims as being permanent, the more we reinforce their selective behavior. For this reason, keep family meals as stress-free as you can manage. Don’t let your child think that her eating is more important to you than it is to her.

  • Make meal time enjoyable – sit with your child and eat with her. Your toddler loves your company, it makes every activity more enjoyable and longer lasting.
  • Allow your child to experience her food fully – even though it creates a mess. Children are sensory creatures – then need to really “get into” food to enjoy it. A mess-free meal will be a future goal, but for now the mess is leading to a joy around food.
  • Have a place and time for eating established in your routine. When it is time to eat a meal or snack, sit down at the table and make space for doing so. Allow your child to eat as much or as little as she wants. Keep meal times and snack times short to respect their natural attention span. Ten to 20 minutes is enough time to eat. If your child is dropping food or playing more than eating, then she is telling you she is finished even if it hasn’t been the full mealtime.
  • Three meals and two snacks will allow your child the opportunity to eat every 2-3 hours. Between these times, don’t offer food – only water. If your child is not eating between the scheduled times to eat, her body will naturally grow hungry and ready for the next scheduled meal.
  • If your child refuses to eat at the scheduled time, honor her assertion that she is not hungry. Children need to eat a lot less than adults to feel full. We all know how uncomfortable it is to over-eat, and children have much smaller stomachs than we do. Your child will certainly survive a skipped meal or snack –especially if you and she both know there is another eating opportunity within the next 2 hours.
  • A child may need to see or experience a food 10-20 times before he is comfortable trying it. This does not make him a picky eater – simply cautious about trying new things. This is a great strategy for young children – if they jumped into new things constantly they would be in grave danger most of the time.
  • When you serve a new food that might be challenging for your child, be sure to have something that you know your child usually likes. Then allow your child to decide when he picks up the new food. If he refuses or doesn’t seem interested the first 19 times, don’t pressure. Remember, this is very typical behavior for toddlers.
  • Parents often have an influence on their child’s eating that they don’t even realize. If you have been referring to your toddler as a “picky eater”, she will believe that is what she is. Even if your toddler is going through a phase of refusing food, avoid talking about it with her or to others as a permanent situation; it won’t be. In addition, be mindful of how you present food to your toddler. If you are making a face when serving a healthy vegetable, your daughter will understand quickly that you don’t like the food. If you don’t like it, there is no reason for her to try it!
  • The more matter of fact we can be around food during the toddler and preschool years, the less likely your toddler will be to engage in a power struggle. To be sure – every toddler will attempt to engage in a power struggle, but if his parent simply doesn’t engage then there is no “game” to play over food. The fact that he ends up hungry and waiting for the next meal only creates more of an incentive for him to get to the business of eating the next time your family sits down to the table.