Friday, March 23, 2012

Toddlers & The Dinner Table – a war or family time?

Eating can be a stressful time for parents and their toddlers. While an important physical need, eating can be more than just finding healthy food for your young one. There is the task of having them eat it. Adults are in charge of most decisions in a toddlers life, but when it comes to toileting, sleeping and eating. Toddlers have all the control. No parent can force a child to sleep, to pee on command or eat when told to. I know many parents who have tried and failed to do so.

Most power struggles are based on parents lack of knowledge, skills, and confidence in themselves or in their children.

When you understand age-appropriateness, and developmental appropriateness, it may help give you perspective as you work with your child to master his body. Focus on cooperation skills. Remember power struggles take two. Everyone needs to eat, sleep and go to the toilet. Instead of engaging in power struggles over these fundamental abilities, try supporting cooperation and discussion through kind, firm action and choices.

From nursing -to toddlers at the dinner table, it is important for you as a parent, to feel confident in your rules, decisions and follow through. If you are not second guessing your own decisions, then you will have an easier time following through and cooperating with your young one.

Toddlers are struggling to learn autonomy and will use whatever means to gain a sense of power good or bad. We all want our toddlers to feel self confident, self assured, empowered and loved.

Using tactics like, “If you don't eat your vegetables, you won't get dessert!” “If you don't eat your eggs for breakfast, you'll get it for lunch!” “Your going to sit there for an hour and If you don't eat, your going to bed!” … leave you and your toddler feeling frustrated, discouraged, unhappy and sometimes scared. This will not build trust and love in your family dynamic. We've known children who throw up, sneak food to the dog, glare at the oatmeal through breakfast, lunch, dinner and sometimes longer starvation strikes. This approach allows the child to engage in a power struggle.

A parents true task is to prepare, present and invite healthy, nutritious foods and it is the child's task to chew and shallow. It doesn't hurt to include foods on the plate you know your child likes.

All of us grew up in different households with different rules, from the lax to the strict. The trick is finding what works now for your family. Behind closed dinner doors, parents have the unique and honoured job to show your family how you invite your family to make dinner time a comforting, fun and engaging time.

Here are some alternate ideas to help your 'picky little eater' give it a try and to stop the 'war' at the table.

  1. Don't force feed. Insisting children eat particular foods, in particular quantities and in a certain time will only create power struggles.
  2. Use mealtime to invite helpers. Toddler love to help in the kitchen. Having them help with the gathering of groceries, the putting away of fridge food and the preparing of meals will give them the control they seek each day. Talking about what they are making for dinner for the whole family, helps them feel involved and they are more likely to eat what THEY prepared themselves. Teach them to spread cream cheeses or PB on bread, crackers etc... That way when older toddlers push away the food presented to them you can ask, “What can you do about that?” WITHOUT making a fuss, sigh, comment, allow them to choose to prepare crackers, sandwich or fruits they learned how to make with you earlier.
  3. Have a meal drawer... I love this idea. I have a snacker myself... Your little one may not be a big eater, but seems hungry all the time. Make healthy snacks available... carrot sticks, celery with PB and raisons on it etc. Set aside a kitchen food drawer for your little one. Whenever my Geran feels hungry he can then go to his drawer and eat anything he found there... crackers, raisins, dried fruits, nuts etc. Geran loves to see what turns up each day in his 'food drawer' and I enjoy not arguing about meals.
  4. Presentation counts. I couldn't get my little one to eat his fruit the other day and grandma took the nana and apples and raisins and made a 'face' on the dinner plate and he gobbled it up, laughing and making up a story about a dinosaur eating him all up... too funny! Colour counts to kids! Hard boiled egg may be boring, so make a 'hole in french toast' and fry it up... scramble it or make an omelet with shredded cheese they put on themselves. Take vegetables and extra fruits and pureeing them and add milk or yogurt and blend into soups.. whatever works! There is loads of protein in milk, so no worries for your little vegetarian who only drinks milk and eats yogurt.
  5. Have a schedule on the wall. Sometimes just the anxiety of thinking about when dinner time is or isn't can cause undo stress to some children (and adults) If they had a visual to see when snacks, dinner are coming ,it can be enough to relax the child. A relaxed, happy child will be far more likely to eat than a stressed out one. Think of yourself, how much do you want to eat when you are fighting and angry?

These are babies your raising. They are learning about the world from you. Teach them it's ok to say no. It's ok to try new things. It is a safe place to be when your at home. Allow your family time to be enriched with questions and sharing. It is far more important to engage at the dinner table with conversation and questions than the amount of food they are eating. Try asking questions like, “What was the happiest part of your day? What was the saddest? What are you excited about tomorrow or the next day? Toddlers don't know time like we do, but the answers will probably make everyone smile or even laugh.” Enjoy each other, this time goes so quickly.


  1. Many of these ideas can be found in Jane Nelsen's Positive Discipline for under 3 book. An excellent resource.

  2. A note on sign language and mealtimes. You can being to build a sense of dual respect by teaching your baby 4 simple signs... EAT, MORE, DRINK and the all important ALL DONE

    As young as 7 months your baby can show his sense of autonomy by asserting his only voice... a sign. By teaching these 4 signs your baby can ask for MORE milk or MORE nana and then in turn tell you when he/she is ALL DONE! It's wonderful to build that kind of respect and love at such a young age.

  3. Begin... oops spelling error.