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A month ago, dinners were full of fits, frustration, and forcing food down our toddler’s mouth. Mealtimes turned into meltdowns and tabletime turned into tears.
Toddler eating wasn’t going well for us. So like anything that doesn’t go well in my life, I turned to the experts and read books and scoured Instagrams. If this is you, and you want a change, keep reading. If you rather laugh at the craziness that is toddlertum, read how we used to get a toddler to eat instead.
In my search for some answers, I found one book and one Instagram page that I really liked, "What to Feed Your Baby” and Kids Eat In Color. I put some of their methods to the test, and here are six strategies that worked for us.
1. Establish roles for the parents and children.
Our baby used to everything. He ate veggies, fruit, yogurt, meat, and grains.
Then, one day he did not eat all that. It was frustrating as a parent. We made up games and tricks to shovel bite after bite into his unassuming mouth.
He soon grew accustomed to our ploys and would whip his head to the side at the last moment leaving food to fly everywhere. Meals ended in one big mess and little food actually having been eaten.
As a mother, I always assumed that it was my duty to make sure my child ate a well-balanced meal no matter the cost. I assumed wrong.
In her book, author and pediatrician, Tanya Altmann, outlines the roles for the parents and children when it comes to eating. The parents’ role is to provide their child with a well-balanced meal. The child’s role is to eat. That’s it. The child doesn’t control what is for dinner. The parent doesn’t control how much and what the child eats. The food is simply served to the child, and the parents has to let go.
After reading this, our stress levels dipped and mealtime became more relaxed. We offered a variety of food at dinner, usually what we were eating, and sat back.
We didn’t stare wide-eyed at our son willing him to eat. We didn’t force feed spoonfuls into his mouth. We didn’t play tricks and do a song and a dance to get him to take one measly bite.
No, instead we gave him his plate and let him do his job once our job was finished. If he ate two bites, ok. If he ate ten bites, good. If he finished the whole plate, great. When he announced he was done, he was done.
Meals are much more enjoyable now that we have established roles. When we stay in our lane and do our job, we usually have a happier, well-fed baby than when we tried to do his job. Set up roles, rules, and boundaries, and you’ll get your serene suppers back in no time.
2. Serve a variety of foods.
This strategy has helped a lot. We used to serve our son exactly what we were having. We still do, but now that he is developing a dislike for some textures and mixtures (Why is this dish all mixed together, Mommy?!), we have been making sure he has veggies, meat, and a starch at dinner with fruit and cheese as an option if he is showing a disdain for the main meal.
Having options does not mean that you, the parent, should make a whole other meal if the first one goes untouched.
Nope, your job is to serve one meal with variety, and if your child doesn’t eat during the designated meal time (more on that later), he doesn’t eat until the next meal time.
That doesn’t mean you should starve your child. It just means use your best judgment and don’t feel like you have to overturn your cabinets and raid your refrigerator to concoct a meal your child will eat.
This simple strategy has saved our sanity when it comes to cooking and meal planning.
3. Set up toddler time zones.
Dr. Altmann uses the term “toddler time zones” in her book, and I think it is genius. The idea is to have a time zone for each meal and snack instead of one long trail of nibbling and grazing on food.
Before, it seemed as if our child was mostly snacking instead of eating his meals. Now, our child has a balance of both.
A time zone is a stretch of time in which the meal or snack is offered.
For example, if our child wakes up at 7:00 AM, breakfast is served anywhere from 7:30 AM - 8:30 AM. Snack would be offered anywhere from 9:30 AM - 10:30 AM. Lunch 11:30 AM - 12:30 PM. Snack 1:30 PM-2:30 PM or later depending on the nap schedule. Then, dinner 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM followed by a before bedtime snack if applicable.
You can adjust the times to best fit to your lifestyle. Just remember to allow a break between time zones.
And like anything with toddlers, remember flexibility, not rigidness, is your friend. If your child doesn’t eat right away at 7:30 AM, try again at a later time in the time zone.
Also, if your child is begging and pleading for food outside the range of the timezone, it doesn’t mean you have to deny and starve him.
The time zones are put in place to prevent all day snacking and full stomachs at mealtimes. At each meal, our child is more likely to be ready to eat, and so far, we have seen success.
4. Make mealtimes at the table.
We really strive to do both mealtimes and snack times at the table while we are eating too. Experts agree that sitting down together as a family encourages toddlers to eat.
Of course things come up, and sometimes snacks have to be on the go. That’s okay!
However, aim to have those larger meals sitting down at the table. Snacks aren’t always the same thing I eat, but breakfasts, lunch, and dinner are roughly the same; otherwise, our son grasps at what we are eating the whole time, and we end up just feeding that to him anyway.
This is really a simple step that has changed the way our toddler eats.
5. Keep it short.
KISS. Keep it short, stupid. That’s for sure. Meals, especially dinners, seemed to drag on forever as we kept persuading and begging our toddler to eat more even after he was long finished and had enough.
Now, after 10 minutes or so, and he’s announced he’s done, we let him get down while Mommy and Daddy finish eating. Anything under 10, and we do our best to encourage him to continue eating or at least sit and join us for a meal.
Toddlers are active creatures. 10 minutes is an ample amount of time to eat at the table. You can buy fun timers from Amazon to let your child know how long he has to remain at the table.
Nevertheless, if our son does decide to get down from the table, it doesn’t mean he has free reign to disrupt Mommy and Daddy’s dinnertime.
You should set rules and boundaries surrounding mealtimes. Once we did, we all enjoyed a nice, peaceful dinner.
6. Buy fun utensils.
Jennifer Anderson, founder of Kids Eat in Color, advertises fun utensils and plates on her Instagram page. She advises that buying fun and creative silverware will make mealtime more enjoyable and playful for toddlers.
We searched Amazon and found a construction set that our son absolutely loves These utensils make good toddler gift ideas that aren't another plastic toy.
Instead of simply eating his meal, he is now shoveling, dumping, and pushing food around and into his mouth on his construction plate with his dump truck and bulldozer fork and spoon.
Mealtime is now a blast, and we have a blast watching him.
SHOP some of my favorites from Amazon now.
I really hope these strategies help you and your family make mealtime more mundane and less memorable for its mess and mayhem. These are 6 simple steps that you can start changing today. Bon appétit!
I also go into depth what to do when your child won't eat in my parenting guide Now What? Mindful Checklists for Life's Hard Parenting Moments. You can try for free below.