I find dinner time with my toddler to be just about as enjoyable as getting my teeth scraped at the dentist. (Actually, a trip to the dentist might be more fun–I get to lie back in a nice chair, close my eyes, and there aren’t any babies or toddlers pulling at my leg.)
My fellow parents of toddlers probably don’t need me to describe the pain that is mealtime with a 2 year old. Meals are rejected, food is thrown, and the whining (for crackers or noodles or whatever) reaches epic proportions. Worst of all, despite the fact that I know better, I inevitably end up in a power struggle with the kid.
“Just one more bite… one tiny bite and you can have a special treat… just one more leeeetle bite.” I might as well get up and go bang my head against a brick wall. It would probably be a lot less painful, and just as effective.
A few months ago, I found myself holding the little demon in my lap, desperately trying to coax her into eating three pieces of couscous off my fork. No, not three bites. Three pieces. There we were, back and forth, struggling not over those tiny little pods, but over who had the power, who was getting the attention, and ultimately, who was the dumbass. (That would, of course, be me.) It was at that point that I decided things had to change.
1. No Talking
You don’t talk about dinnertime. Seriously. The minute you open your mouth and indicate the slightest bit of interest in whether or not the toddler eats, you lose. At that point she knows she’s got you, and she will do everything to destroy you. While still not eating. When that little ankle-biter repeatedly states that she won’t be eating something, your best response is, “OK.” And then, no matter how much it hurts, bite your tongue.
2. Keep Offering
Keep offering new foods, but always make sure there is something on the table the kid will eat. Let the little one choose what he wants, and then go back to Rule #1. Last night the baby and I ate avocado, blueberries, cheese, tortillas, noodles, and hummus. The toddler ate noodles and blueberries, and the most miniscule bite of hummus you have ever seen (all the while reminding me again and again that she would not, in fact, be eating the cheese, avocado, or tortillas).
3. No bargaining
Don’t bargain over bites and don’t hold dessert hostage. If you do that, mealtime will stop being about sharing food together and learning how to make healthy eating choices. It will become just another power struggle with your toddler, which, by definition, you will lose. Offer your dinner, offer dessert (which at our house is fruit or yogurt, or, on the rare occasion we go out, it might be ice cream or a cookie), and let that little tyrant eat what she wants.
4. No Preparation
The more energy/time/care you put into the meal, the more likely it is that it will be rejected. Kids know when you care, and they use it against you. That’s why we eat a lot of quesadillas, frozen veggies, veggie burgers, and whole wheat pasta with different sauces that were made and frozen ahead of time. At least twice a week we also have “refrigerator dinners” when I make a meal of all the random stuff we have in the fridge. Cottage cheese, veggies, toast, cold cuts, whatever–it all goes into the little sections on the plastic toddler plate, and she can choose what she wants.
5. Yes to Rules
Don’t mistake this as a free-for-all at dinnertime–we do have rules. My toddler knows how to sit at the table; we don’t eat at the couch or on the floor. She knows not to play with the plate or throw her food, and she knows we don’t play with toys during dinner. When she doesn’t want to eat, she does have to sit at the table for a few minutes at dinnertime, and then she can go play.
In addition, I’ve found a few other tricks that seem to help with my girls. I try not to let them get too tired, and I make a point of playing music during dinnertime; it keeps the girls from getting bored during the meal.
Just to be clear, and honest, I don’t always follow my own rules. I try, but the Jewish Mother in me can’t help but try to “encourage” my daughter to try her broccoli. I regret it even as the words are coming out of my mouth, because it never helps. But I’m getting better, and mealtimes are a lot less painful. I might even prefer them to the dentist now.
Be sure to check out our recipes database for tons of meals that your toddler may or may not eat.