Tell me if this sounds like an all-too-familiar scene to you:
You serve dinner. You wrangle your toddler into his high chair. He takes 2 bites and declares that he’s done. Like DONE done. You try every tactic in the book: Pleading with him to eat a few more bites, promising a dessert or treat if he just eats a bit more, distracting him with a toy. Finally you give up, he leaves the table only to return minutes later declaring he’s hungry. Like REALLY super hungry. What is a parent to do?
This story is a common one for so many of the parents I work with in my Signature Program. As a mom of 2 little ones I can relate to how frustrating it can be to make the effort to prepare a meal only for your child to refuse to even stay at the table. While toddlers are notorious for digging in their heels and exerting their will at every opportunity, making a few small changes to your feeding routine can have a profound effect on their willingness to stay at the table and hey, maybe even eat a little.
So why does your toddler resist coming to the dinner table in the first place? Here are the 3 biggest reasons why I see this happening:
- They’re just not hungry. Kids tends to regulate their caloric intake over a 24 hour period. For many toddlers, this means that by dinnertime they may have met (or nearly met) their caloric needs earlier in the day. As adults we place a lot of emphasis on dinner, but for your little one, they likely don’t see it that way. Also, they may have filled their bellies with a snack that was just a little too close to dinnertime.
- They know what’s coming. Pressure to eat their veggies, prompting to have a few more bites, the back-and-forth negotiating that can be frustrating and exhausting for everyone. I tell parents I work with “Would you want someone staring at your every move at the table, evaluating every bite you take, or don’t take? Well guess what, neither does your child.”
- They’re tired. Toddlers are not only physically busy, they’re also mentally busy, with many cognitive changes happening around the 2-year mark. If your little one is eating dinner at 6:30pm or later, chances are they’re more focussed on bedtime than mealtime. Of course there is good evidence to support the many benefits of eating as a family. But with busy lives come busy schedules, and sometimes it’s nearly impossible to make these regular family meals a reality.
By making 3 small changes, you will likely see at least some change in your toddler’s interest in coming to the table and perhaps eating.
- Try to ensure that your toddler isn’t having a snack within 1.5 hours of dinner. This can be challenging as toddlers can put on Oscar-worthy performances of starvation and despair right before dinner (at least mine do!). Sticking to your guns and limiting eating to scheduled meals and snacks can help your little one build up just enough hunger for dinner so that they’re actually motivated to come to the table and eat.
- Give your toddler permission not to eat dinner. Sounds crazy right? Why on earth would you serve a dinner and tell her she doesn’t actually have to eat it? Remember, it’s your job to get the meal on the table and be “considerate of likes and dislikes without catering” to them (in Ellyn Satter’s words), but your job stops there. Do set the expectation that they come join you at the table, but allow your child to choose whether to eat the foods you’ve offered, and how much, and make it clear to them that they have control over these things. It may sound counterintuitive, but handing over this control will actually INCREASE their likelihood of eating and of trying something new.
- Try serving dinner slightly earlier if you’re able to (between about 5-5:30pm works well for many young kids). I recognize this isn’t always possible (or necessary for some kids), and sometimes it’s at the expense of the whole family eating together, but it may be this small change that helps your toddler feel a little less tired and a little more interested in eating. This could mean eating part of the meal with your child, and the remainder of the meal with your partner or the rest of the family a bit later.
Hope these tips help! Want more advice on how to feed your little one? Come join the FREE Facebook Group where you’ll find my latest video post on this very topic!