Six Steps to a Peaceful Toddler Meal Time

Meal times with toddlers can be stressful. For parents, there is the constant pressure to ensure children are receiving adequate nutrition, which, combined with a toddler’s need to assert their autonomy can lead to anything but a peaceful toddler meal time.

Peaceful Toddler Meal Time

It is no surprise, therefore, that at some stage, our babies or toddlers sense our stress and may change their eating behaviours in response.

This happened for us when our daughter, hit around 9 months of age (although, we certainly didn’t realise it at the time). She was a pretty good eater but was never a big eater.

I occasionally worried that she wasn’t getting enough food but generally she ate happily and without fuss.

This all changed, however; overnight. Mealtimes became more akin to a battle field and those in charge of feeding her needed to ensure they were ‘suited up’ in appropriate apron-ware to repel the projectiles of food that soon flew through the air either by hand or straight out of her mouth!

It became a very stressful time for all involved. It was only thanks to hindsight and an article highlighting changes that can happen with babies and their food, that I could see what may have happened to cause this shift in behaviour. And I have since set about making meal times peaceful once more using six helpful strategies.

At around the time food became an issue, our daughter had developed her first gastro bug. It was not overly serious but she had a night of vomiting followed by about two weeks of diarrhoea. Not being aware of the RIE approach to mealtimes, I had always used distractions such as toys or keys or other objects to keep her attention whilst I spooned in as much as I could.

At around the time she was sick, she went off her food almost altogether for a period of time. Concerned that she was not eating enough, I tried everything to get her to eat her meals. I coerced her into taking, “Just one more mouthful.” with pleas: “Come on darling, you like spaghetti.” and bribes: “If you eat this pea, you can have some apple puree.”

It became a battle of wills fraught with emotions from us both. In her advice to another parent having the same issues with their toddler, Janet Lansbury had this to say, which helped me to see what might have been happening at our dinner table.

“Then something happened. Your guess is as good – or better – than mine: teething, a cold, a change of taste, or just a period of growth when Tessa didn’t have her usual appetite (children go through phases when they eat less). This change in Tessa’s eating caused her parents a teensy weensy bit of concern, her antenna picked up a “vibe” (with a toddler’s sixth sense, it doesn’t take much), and she felt some tension surrounding her and food.

Eating is an area Tessa controls and needs to control. She is the only one who knows when she’s hungry and when she’s full. She has to listen to her tummy and trust herself. Lately, mealtime has become a little too “loaded” for her to be able to listen.  She’s not trying to torture you; she’s just feeling her power and playing her role, which is to resist anything she perceives as pressure”.

Having read this and the useful advice which came along with it, I set about turning mealtimes into a stress free activity once again using these 6 steps.

1. Taking the emotion out of the food

By celebrating when our daughter would eat a mouthful or by pleading with her to eat her food, she was learning to associate her food with power. She knew she could control the situation to get reactions out of me. Meal times was not about eating to satisfy hunger anymore but rather, a game, a time to test boundaries.

We needed to stop using ‘tricks’ to get her to eat. When mealtimes are on now, toys and other distractions are put away so the focus is on the food. She gets to control what goes in her mouth and is a full and active participant in the process rather than merely a recipient of food.

We trust her to know what her body needs and remain unruffled by her choice not to eat much or any of the food offered. By removing the emotion and simply presenting her with the food, our daughter has now learned that when she eats it is about filling her tummy, rather than a game or a power struggle.

 2. Setting logical, unruffled limits

By setting a logical limit of removing her food once our daughter began throwing, spitting or playing with her food, we were able to respectfully restore the peace to the dinner table. As with many toddler behaviours, there needs to be guidance and boundaries that help them learn what is and isn’t acceptable. This doesn’t need to be heavy handed or a power struggle but it does need to be consistent.

In particular, we are careful with the language we use when she starts to play with her food. If we see her playing, we state very matter of factly: “I can see you are playing with your food. When you play, you are telling me you have finished eating. Are you done?” She then has the choice to continue eating her food or have me clear her plate. If the playing starts again, we remove the plate simply saying “Thank you for letting me know you have finished. Here’s a washer to wipe your hands.”

Using this, we now rarely have an issue with playing with food. She will still occasionally test this limit but by staying calm and consistent in how we approach it, it never escalates to tantrums by her or anger by us.

3. Offering smaller portions of food

This is a great piece of advice. By giving her a small amount on the plate, it makes it seem less daunting for her to eat. If she finishes what’s there, we always have more ready to refill her plate. Often now, we will put just one small piece of the vegetables that we know she does not like eg one pea, one little cube of sweet potato. Some nights she leaves them, others she puts them in her mouth and bites down before spitting them out again and every so often will actually eat it. We love that she still has the opportunity to try these things and we know that one day her tastes will mature and she will happily eat her vegetables.

4. Including a variety on the plate

I know myself that if I eat a plate of the same thing, I fill up pretty quickly, but then can find room for some garlic bread or dessert or something with a different taste. I figure it is the same for my kids. We always try to provide a variety of tastes and textures so that when she gets sick of one thing, she can try something different.

5. Not trying to eat with young children

In her book ‘Dear Parents – Caring for Infants With Respect’Magda Gerber suggests having dedicated meal times for young children with adults eating separately later. I had always thought that eating a meal as a family was important and that the children would see us eating our food and try to emulate.

The reality was always far from this, however.  It seemed that the children picked up on the small moments of inattentiveness when we would go to take a mouthful and choose those times to upend the plate or knock the cup of water on the floor. It was never the picture book moments I had envisaged where we each discussed our day’s events.

Meals are one of those caregiving times where being 100% present with the child is necessary for them to be happy in their independent play later. Trying to eat and be present, is very difficult. Usually the meals go cold all round!

When the children are older and more independent, we will be happy to transition to a full family meal time.

6. Limit snacks between meals

This was a big one for us. Snacks were used regularly in our household as a distraction to ‘buy time’ when I just needed to get the last of the washing on the line or get the bags packed for an outing or in the car to keep the kids happy and quiet.

Since discovering a much more purposeful and respectful approach to parenting under the RIE philosophies, I now find I don’t need to use snacks in this way and as a pleasant side effect, I have noticed that the children eat much more heartily at meal times. Not having snacks at the ready throughout the day also helps to reinforce to her the importance of eating the food presented to her at meal times.

Overall, meal times are now a much more pleasant occurrence in our household. Both our daughters enjoy having us present with them when they eat and power struggles are now few and far between.

My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach which I learned of through Janet Lansbury’s blog. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links)

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition)  ~ Magda Gerber

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities — From the Very Start
~ Magda Gerber

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting  ~ Janet Lansbury

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury

10 thoughts on “Six Steps to a Peaceful Toddler Meal Time

  1. Cheryl

    I love this post but don’t agree with number 5. My daughter eats best when we eat with her. She sees us eating the same food she has on her tray and happily dives in. If we aren’t eating with her she is much more difficult, even if we devote all of our attention to her. We have sat her in a chair at the table with us since she was 3 months old (although she just observed for several months) and I think it has helped to make her a great eater. She has always enjoyed it and almost always tastes (and eats!) whatever we give her. (Tonight she devoured rhubarb chutney!) I have many other friends who do not eat with their babies/toddlers and they are fussy, fussy eaters. I’m not saying that this is the only reason why, however, I do think babies/toddlers look up to their parents in many situations, including eating, for guidance and assurance.

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  3. Paulina

    I enjoyed this post but must disagree with letting kids eat alone. A family meal is about so much more than just the food consumed, it is also about the company, and about the way we eat. We were lucky, I think, to learn about baby led weaning early on, and have always had family meals. If you do not view the upturned plates as problem but rather a natural phase of exploration, you will soon see it fade away in favor of some lovely self-acquired table manners.

    Reply
    1. Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

      I totally agree, Paulina. I was sad to say goodbye to our family meals and it is definitely temporary. Unfortunately, it simply was not working for us at the time I wrote that post and for all our sanity’s sake, we had to abandon it. When the girls eat now we try to make it seem like a family meal in all ways except that we just don’t eat. We sit at the table with them and talk about our days etc and love the bonding time it provides us. Because the girls are asleep by 6-6:30, dinner is usually at about 5-5:30 for them at the moment and my husband and I were also finding we were having to eat again by about 8:30 haha! I am really looking forward to the time when a family meal works for us again. 🙂 Thank you for your thoughtful comment. xx Kate

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      1. TB

        What about lunch? My daughter, age two and a half, is a non-napper. I could not stand not eating from seven thirty AM (when my husband leaves) to six thirty PM (when she falls asleep). I already feel that I have her self-entertain enough while I do minor chores and food prep (in addition to what we do while she is asleep). Would you recommend additional alone time for the child while the parent eats, over continuing to try to eat with her while she repeatedly drops utensils and demands that I tell lengthy stories (difficult to do while I enjoy food – there is a reason we have no footage of Maya Angelou entertaining an audience while eating spaghetti)? I would like to eat separately if it were, somehow, possible.

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  4. mymyblue

    I recently discovered your blog and thanks to you, the RIE approach and Janet !!
    I am reading your old articles when I have the time.
    I must say thank you for this one. My son TJ is 4 year old and a very fussy eater (since he was born) and actually we have found that (like you say in #5) eating seperately helps him a lot, and us too. Before I felt so guilty to have seperate meal time because it was not what the books were saying. I am so happy to read this article, I feel much better.
    Like you do, I have also found that giving smaller portion and a variety of food on the plate helps him, and taking the emotion out of the food too.
    We still seat down with him and his little sister eats too, but we, parents, don’t eat : we ask him about his day and have a nice bonding time. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

      I’m really pleased to hear that you have discovered RIE and Janet! Isn’t it a life changing discovery? It is so lovely to have that connection time with our children over their meals. Giving them our full attention at the table is very important when they are younger and once they become used to the meal time routine and a little more independent you can slowly start introducing food for Mum and Dad too. Thank you for letting me know of your success!

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  7. Jennifer

    Our 18 month DD has developmental delays, sensory issues and feeding issues. Everyone kept telling us to just keep giving her food and eventually she would eat. She never did. Or they would give us advice like this – feed her and eat later so we can focus on her, take her food away if she plays with it, dont give her food or snacks (in our case, milk,) between meals so she will be more hungry, dont let her play while eating. But our therapists have told us that it is extremely important that we eat meals together so she can watch us eating and understand how to eat and the value of eating, to help engage her and make her curious to eat and mimic us… and they have also told us it is crucial that we allow her time every day to play with food, make a mess, paint with it, splatter it, drop it in the floor, etc, to sensitize her to it and let her learn to accept food and not reject it, to make mealtime free from stress and pressure and more relaxed. They also encourage using tools / toys to help her engage and experiment with her food. So while this article may be helpful for some people
    .. If there are any underlying issues causing feeding problems, this advice may not really work.

    Reply

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