Three tips for avoiding toddler food battles

“Thank you,” my toddler said, handing me his empty plate. “Want to get down and play.”

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “He didn’t ask for more food. It worked!”

My toddler loves eating, so much so that for the past several months, he asks for more food even after we’ve given him a gargantuan portion size. Couple this with his crying debacles when we take him down from the high chair, eating time had become a war zone and food battles a common occurrence. I realized that unless I want him to be a champion buffet eater, a food hoarder or a diet freak, we needed to change things fast. Fortunately we did, using these three tips:

Tip #1: Let him eat unassisted
In the past, my husband and I would pierce or scoop our toddler’s food before handing him the utensil. Or, we would tear a slice of bread into bite-size pieces and toss it in front of him at regular intervals. If you’re starting to think that this is a wee bit like bird feeding, sadly you’re not alone. But we defended ourselves because handing (or tossing) him his food was easier, cleaner, and enabled us to monitor the pace he was eating. Considering that he would eat so fast and therefore ask for more, we didn’t see an easy way out.

But because we were deciding when he would have his next bite, or what food he wants to try next, or whether or not he should even have a bite at all, my toddler became a passive eater, eating at our discretion, not his. I started to think that perhaps part of the reason my toddler acts up around mealtimes is because he’s yet again under our control over something as basic and essential as eating.

We’ve changed things up: now he scoops his own risotto, pierces his own pineapple and grabs the pancakes with his own hands. I’ve had to keep my grimaces to myself whenever he’d splat yet another spoonful of spinach soup all over his sleeve or inadvertently dust breadcrumbs on the floor, but at least he seems happy being an equal participant at the dinner table.

Tip #2: Present all the food at once
Sometimes my husband and I swear we’re geniuses only to be schooled once again by our two-year-old. For instance, we knew how much LO loves fruit, and that given the choice between fruit and a main meal, he will likely gobble up the fruit before even laying eyes on the main meal.

“Let’s bring out the main meal first,” we conspired. “He’ll think that that’s all he’s eating, and will finish the whole thing. Then when he’s done, we can bring out his fruit. Mwahahahaha.”

And it seemed to work: my toddler finished the chicken and rice completely before asking for more. “Here’s your fruit!” we’d proclaim, smugly thinking that we had just tricked him into eating his main meal first. Then we got not-so-smug when he asked for more after he finished the fruit. And after he finished the veggies. And after he finished the bread. Until eventually he just tricked us into giving him way more food than we had intended or wanted. Our kitchen was starting to look like a seven-course restaurant, with mom and dad bringing out meals one right the other. He probably thought he had the whole kitchen at his disposal, and without a clear amount of food in front of him, he just kept asking for more.

So now I take the opposite approach. Recently, after sitting him down at the table, I gave him everything that we wanted him to eat all at once: salmon patties, a slice of bread and a bowl of blueberries. Not surprisingly, he turned to the blueberries first and grabbed a few. “Great,” I thought dejectedly. “He’s just going to finish all the blueberries.” But with just a few reminders to eat his salmon and bread as well, he ended up alternating and eating from all three foods! And when he eventually ran out of blueberries, he not only refrained from asking for more, he held up his empty bowl and handed it to me saying, “All done, thank you.” Wow.

Tip #3: Let him linger at the dining table
Most of the crying happened when it was time to get down from the high chair. After our toddler had just put the last of the sweet potatoes into his mouth, we’d thrust his water cup to his mouth, say, “Yay! All done!” and proceed with taking him down in lightning speed. We were scared that if given even just a little bit more time to stay at the table, he’d start asking for more food, so we wanted him down as fast as possible. “Get him down while he’s distracted,” we thought. Instead, LO would cling to the table, crying, “Stay! Want to eat!”

Then my husband said, “You and I like to sit and chat at the table, even if there’s no food left in front of us.” And we thought maybe our toddler didn’t want to get down from the table not so much because he was still hungry but because he actually enjoyed sitting here with us, sans food. Then of course mommy guilt took over: “Oh, no! You’ve forever erased his joy of eating and dining at the table! Now he’s going to be fast-food American instead of slow-food Italian (never mind that we’re not Italian)!”

Now, we let him linger at the table. If it looks like he’s ready to leave the table, I help him get down from his high chair. Otherwise we’ll talk, and I’ll mention that he could tell me if he wants to stay or go. And usually he’ll say the miracle words: “Want to get down and play.”

A truce is called
I’m amazed that through letting go of control, allowing a bit of mess here and there, and simply listening to my toddler, I was able to reap so much more compliance from him than what we had been currently doing. And more importantly, he feels like an equal, active participant at the dinner table, able to enjoy his meal and his company.

Maybe that’s all he wanted all along.

How do you handle food battles in your home? Do you have additional tips I could try to prevent any food flare-ups? What has worked for your kids? What hasn’t?


9 thoughts on “Three tips for avoiding toddler food battles

  1. We’ve always encouraged our toddler to eat on his own, although some of the messes were catastrophic. Our biggest problem is trying to get him to eat a balanced meal. He’s getting into that picky stage where getting him to eat anything new is like pulling teeth. It’s frustrating because he used to be such a good eater when it came to trying new things. Now it’s “I don’t like it” before he even takes a bite.

    I don’t suppose you have any ideas in that respect? 🙂

    • You may want to try this strange method we did a while back when our toddler was doing this. Drove me nuts too, because he wouldn’t even taste it, just look at it and already decide he didn’t want it.

      So, whenever he didn’t want to eat something, say, pasta, we would give him a forkful of the pasta with something that he did like to eat, like sweet potatoes. Never mind that the combination can be a tad strange (we’ve even combined fish with strawberries or other random combos) but hey, it was enough to get him to at least try. Then when it seemed like he was on a roll after a few bites, we’d give him the pasta and sweet potatoes separately again, and this seemed to work.

      • That’s a neat idea. I’ll have to try that. Sadly, my best effort has involved bribery. I got him to eat an entire slice of homemade taco pizza by telling him we would pick out some ice cream at the store that evening. I was going to get ice cream anyway, but I felt a little bit like a bad parent bribing him to eat like that. It worked, though, and he told me he liked the pizza in the end.

  2. Loved reading this!! Thanks for sharing. It seems like lately, I have not been able to get my kids to eat tho! I have a 3 year old, which I have heard are finicky eaters so I am not too worried about her, but my 1 year old used to eat SOO much and now he isn’t eating much at all. Maybe teething??!?

    • That’s pretty likely that it’s teething. I blame teething for everything lol. At one year old they stop eating as much as they used to because their growth pretty much tapers out. They don’t grow nearly as fast as when they were infants. Maybe it’s just that? Hopefully your little guy will start eating soon!

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