Strategies for Mealtime Battles With Toddlers

Mailbag time! Toddlers. They keep us on our toes. One question I get asked quite often, is how we handle toddlers that just. won't. eat. Not to worry, we've got a method for that madness.

- question -

Hi Kendra,

I love your blog! The babies, the Catholic, the parties. My favourite though are your posts about parenting. I want to be a mom like you when I "grow up".

Which is why I'm writing. I have a 21 month old daughter. She was a really good eater. She still is at breakfast. But the past 3 nights now have just been battles at the dinner table. She'll have two bites and then cry about things, or ask for something like milk or water or the feta from my salad. I would give them to her if she was eating better! So I've been telling her "take one bite and you can have ---". But she refuses! I don't give in because I try to mean what I say, but she's been going to bed with a pretty empty belly I think.

What do you do when your toddlers refuse to eat?


- answer -


I'm so sorry. I know firsthand how frustrating that can be. I'd say though, that in my experience, how much food a toddler needs can vary wildly from day to day or week to week. As long as my kids are otherwise healthy, I really don't stress these days about how much they eat on a particular day. Sometimes they'll be about to have a growth spurt and seem to be hungry all the time, and other days, they seem to eat hardly anything all day. But somehow, they're fine.

As long as your mama gut isn't telling you that there's more going on here, like illness or allergies, I really think it's probably something that will resolve itself over time.

If you're more concerned with it as a behavior issue than an amount of food issue, we can look at it a different way. Since the battle seems to be with dinner in particular, I think you could just figure she's just not so much of a late in the day eater, and focus on getting quality foods into her earlier in the day. My oldest was a really unpredictable eater, but he could almost always be counted upon to eat an egg at breakfast. That always made me feel better. I figured he could totally live on an egg a day, even if it seemed like he didn't want to eat much at the rest of his meals.

The other thing to try would be limiting or getting rid of snacking in the afternoon. I find that it makes a huge difference with some of my kids. Anita for instance, who is six: if she has a snack, she pretty much never wants to eat dinner. She's old enough to understand that it's better for her to just not have snacks so she can enjoy her dinner with the family. I'm not sure if an almost two year old would be as understanding, but if eating dinner is important to you, you can give it a try.

But really, as much as possible, I'd encourage you to not make a big deal about mealtimes. I think eating food is best understood by all of us, kids included, to be a blessing and a privilege, not something we battle over or endure or are cajoled or threatened into doing. We try to keep our kids hungry enough that they want to eat, and offer them healthy foods that they mostly like. But we also don't sweat it if they want to choose not to eat at a particular meal, even the toddlers. As long as they don't have other health concerns, if they are hungry enough, they will eat. And if they're not hungry enough, then going to bed without much of a dinner won't hurt a bit.

Here's an earlier post all about how we arrived at this system, and how it has worked in our family:

Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.