We’re on our second timeout. Not for my 2-year-old daughter, but for me. In the 30 minutes since we started dinner I have had to walk away twice to calm myself down. I’m stressed, frustrated and honestly, defeated. My toddler refuses to eat. We experience a toddler mealtime tantrum at almost every single meal, and it’s getting to me.
My daughter Coco used to eat almost everything I gave her. Meat, veggies, dairy, carbs…you name it, she ate it. This all stopped a few months before her 2nd birthday. Now she subsists on a limited diet of avocados, berries, chocolate milk and cold cuts. With the exception a few whims here and there, she refuses everything else.
This behavior, the neophobic response, is typical for toddlers. With these new toddler eating habits I developed my own mealtime stress response, compounded by the fact that Coco weighed in at the 1 percentile at our most recent checkup.
I clearly needed to figure out how to get my toddler to eat more, so of course, I consulted the internet (and some books. Remember books?). The bottom line is that stressed, excited toddlers will not eat. Removing the stressors is the first step to diffusing toddler mealtime tantrums. Success hinges on the parents’ ability to recognize and modify their own problematic behavior. Here’s what I’ve learned, and the tactics I’ve tried that have started to help.
Reduce stimulation and excitement before the meal
I read in The Science of Parenting that excitement or stress can suppress the appetite. It matches my own experience because Coco can’t focus on dinner if she’s been actively playing or running around. I started giving her a quiet activity to do 15-30 minutes before dinner. Finger painting, Play-Doh, or other fine motor skill activities work well to reduce excitement. The bonus is that while she’s occupied I can work on food prep.
Include at least one healthy food your toddler will eat
The healthy food I serve is usually some kind of fruit or avocado. I wish I could say Coco eats vegetables, but that doesn’t happen unless I hide them in something else. Regardless, it lowers my stress level to serve at least one healthy thing that she’ll eat. And when I’m less stressed, Coco is less stressed.
Serve your toddler first, then walk away
At this point, family meals where we all sit down together aren’t happening. Coco gets distracted by me and her father. She wants to play with us, gets excited, then ignores her food (see above). Recently I’ve been serving her first, before anyone else sits to eat. I walk away just far enough to give her space to explore her food without my anxious hovering and prodding (This is yummy! Try this!). It’s a surprisingly effective technique. She happily plays with her food for up to 10 minutes, some of it actually getting in. She even ate roasted cabbage the other night. I was shocked.
Don’t stress the mess
This has been the hardest technique for me because I’m a neat freak. I’ll admit that. I recognized that my stress about messes was adding to Coco’s stress level at mealtimes. She can’t relax when I’m constantly wiping up or hovering with a napkin. Now I try my best to back off with the cleaning, and not react when she does make a mess. I tell myself that I can clean up after she’s done eating.
Have some back-up options
If I constantly give into her requests for junk, then Coco will never learn to eat healthy food. However, providing options can avert a toddler power struggle. For example, the first few times Coco asks for chocolate, I repeat that she can eat what is on her plate. If she persists and becomes upset, I’ll offer the healthier backup options: “Would you like some cheese or yogurt instead?” It’s advanced negotiating. If I wait until she knows she’s not getting chocolate, she’s more willing to take the trade of cheese or yogurt.
Mealtimes are getting better. We still have mealtime tantrums, though not as many. Coco is eating a greater variety of foods, a little at a time. Most of the work leading to these changes has been adjusting my own behavior, however. I know I still have work to do.
Toddler mealtime battles are like a war of attrition, where one side is eventually victorious through small, incremental wins. I will happily take these incremental wins.