Have you ever found yourself in a meal-time standoff with your toddler? This type of battle becomes all too familiar for parents, especially once kids have crossed the threshold of toddlerhood and beyond! Not to worry, as a dietitian mom, I have some battle-tested strategies that will help you navigate the tricky terrain of toddler mealtime refusal.
As Kepler Academy’s Dietitian, I’ve also worked alongside the Kepler staff to ensure that they are empowered with this knowledge and the below advice/strategies so that your child feels safe to explore food in a positive way (which will nurture their relationship with food long-term). Let’s dive in!
Whatever you do, don’t bribe them to eat…
I know it seems like I am taking away a strategy, but trust me, bribing your child with something that they prefer (such as getting dessert or candy) if they eat supper only works in the short term. Reward-based learning rarely leads to long-term behaviour change and unfortunately putting this type of pressure on your child doesn’t promote a positive relationship with food as they grow. It actually does the opposite! Please know, you haven’t “ruined” your child by bribing them to eat dinner. We have all done this in one way or another.
Pressuring your child to eat foods you consider “healthy” so that they may be rewarded with the “yummy” food only makes the “healthy” food that much yuckier in their mind. It also puts the reward foods on a higher pedestal creating a food hierarchy that can dampen their ability to eat intuitively. So, let’s cast any feeding agendas and pressure aside to create a more positive mealtime experience. This will allow your child to tune into and begin to trust their internal hunger and fullness cues. A more relaxed mealtime that fosters trust and less pressure, ultimately reduces how often your child will reject the meals you have painstakingly prepared for them!
Be courteous without catering
Parents are ultimately in charge of what is served at mealtimes, however, giving your child some form of involvement around what or how food is served can do wonders! That doesn’t mean you should let your child “run the show” when it comes to what is on the menu (this can exacerbate picky eating). To make myself clear, here are some examples of what I mean when I say you can aim to “be courteous without catering” at mealtimes:
- Help make meals (especially new foods) less overwhelming by serving them in smaller portions on their plate. This might be as small as one tablespoon of mashed sweet potato, or roasted broccoli.
- Serve meals “family style” where each meal component is available in the centre of the table for your child to dish out themselves (or with your help if they are younger toddlers). This way they feel more in control, and don’t feel the indirect pressure of having large piles of food already on their plate.
- Ask them how they want their meal served. This could mean having a deconstructed burrito or taco instead of it all wrapped together for more cautious eaters. It may mean they would like one or two sauces on the side for dipping their veggies or meat. Give them these options and see what happens!
- Offer a safe food (something you know they like and will eat) at mealtimes, especially when serving a new food or meal. The safe food acts like a “friend at the party” the chance that they will warm up to engaging with the rest of the meal versus immediately rejecting it as soon as they sit down.
Reassure them that they don’t have to eat it!
This is the crux of the Division of Responsibility in feeding where your child’s responsibility during meal or snack is to decide whether they want to eat and how much. Putting pressure (whether it’s direct or indirect) on your child always backfires in the end. In a well-intentioned attempt to get your child to eat or eat more, you may unintentionally bring on meal-time refusal. This refusal is a frustrated plea of retribution to regain control over their own eating decisions!
So next time you see a large grimace spread across your child’s face as they proclaim, “Ugh I am not eating that!”, instead of responding with frustration or anger, calmly say “That’s ok, you don’t have to eat it.” This simple response puts the decision to eat firmly back in its rightful place, within your child’s control. Restoring your toddler with a sense of independence and self-efficacy at the table will bring you much closer to experiencing struggle-free and peaceful mealtimes more often.
If your parent intuition tells you that there’s more to your child’s eating story, it is time to book in with a pediatric dietitian
One of the most valuable superpowers we have as parents is our parental “Spidey” sense. You know your child better than anyone else, and should always trust your instincts when it comes to their health and well-being. If you think your child may be struggling with negative health concerns as a result of extreme picking eating, it may be time to book in with a pediatric dietitian who can properly assess your child and provide individualized nutrition support. We offer Kepler Academy parents a generous discount on personalized nutrition counselling with our team of registered dietitians. Contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about these services.