Feeding Toddlers: How To Avoid The Mealtime Power Battles?

Feeding Toddler - How To Avoid Mealtime Power Battles

Meal times with toddlers need not be agonizing power struggles! You may have experienced it yourself or as a new mom, you may have heard a lot of horror stories…

It was so much easier when they were little babies, wasn’t it? They'd simply eat anything you fed them, because they were simply too hungry to care.

But as the babies approach the crucial 1-year-old checkpoint, you will realize that they become choosier and less hungry. Is this really a cause for concern?

Take a step back and think… Isn’t this only natural?

Just imagine if they continued eating and growing at the same rate as when they were an infant… What size will they grow to?

Before we start fretting over whether our little toddlers are getting sufficient food and nutrients, we need to realize that in their second year, growth slows down significantly and hence, their altered appetite. It is also the time when their minds are rapidly developing.

We can understand their fear of new food and the more discerning approach towards food as an adaptive instinctive trait to protect the recently mobile little ones from consuming toxic foods.

Their appetite and preference for food may vary from meal to meal, day to day… just like ourselves! There are days we eat more or even meals when we feel like skipping; and there are times when we feel like eating a particular food and nothing else…

The first step we should take is to stop fretting and just trust that our toddlers have a natural instinct to pick a well-balanced diet in the long run… if they aren’t given too many prejudices.

And we parents have to do our part. Always bear in mind that our 1-year-olds are starting to recognize and realize that they are no longer dolls. They have a mind of their own and they are eager to assert themselves, expressing their likes and dislikes.

If your toddlers do not feel like eating certain vegetables or foods, let them give up that particular food for a while.

If you don’t make a fuss, they will probably come back to those food next week or next month. If you insist that they eat, they will treat it as their enemy instinctively.

This can become a vicious cycle. Once a child becomes uncooperative at meal times, most parents become worried and angry. The more the parent frets and urges, the less the child eats. In turn, the parent gets increasingly anxious and furious.

Such agonizing meal battles can potentially last for years, creating parent-child tensions that may even lead to more serious behavioral problems.

The best way to get toddlers eating well is to let them think of food as something they want.

So if you find that they're refusing a particular food, let them leave it out temporarily without making a fuss. Find another substitute food to make up for the same nutrients. Then try again the same food casually a few weeks later. It is not surprising if it takes 10-20 tries to get your toddler try a new food.

“You don’t have to eat it”

As Maryann Jacobsen explains in her Huffington Post article "End Mealtime Battles Forever with These 5 Simple Words", these are 5 simple words parents can use to avoid a food battle. This applies to situations when the toddler is refusing to eat at meal time or refusing a particular food.

Kids may sometimes declare that they do not want to eat dinner. This may happen when they're deep in play just before dinnertime, but it is never a good idea to engage in a battle with them. Whether you or the toddler becomes the winner, it is not beneficial either way.

Our toddlers should perceive food and mealtimes as something they enjoy, hence this connection should not be marred by a battle of the parent’s will vs. the toddler’s will.

Hence, with the 5 words “You don’t have to eat it”, you give him/her the choice. We should also warn them about when the next eating opportunity is, and ask if they are sure if they are indeed not eating. Subtly suggest that they may get hungry before the next meal is available.

However, as mealtime is part of daily routine and also an important time for family and social interaction, this choice should be accompanied by a house rule - mealtimes mean family time. Hence, whether they are eating or not, they will have to sit at the table.

Chances are, most kids will end up chewing on at least something off their plates.

Tip: It is a helpful practice to give a 5 or 10 minutes notice before mealtime so that they know ahead of time that playtime is ending soon.

Important: If the toddlers have refused dinner only to be very hungry and asking for food later, do not feed them with palatable snacks. You will be sending the wrong message to them that it is alright to hold out dinner for their favorite snack. Instead, feed them with the leftover from dinner and explain to them that they are feeling hungry because they had skipped the dinner earlier.

It is also common for toddlers to be standing and playing during mealtimes. Whenever they lose interest in food, assume that they've had enough. Be firm but do not be mad. Let them down from their chair and remove their food.

If you're habitually firm and casually stop their meal when they lose interest, they will do their part by paying attention to their food when they are hungry.

However, do note that babies around 1 year old or less may be dipping their hands in the soup or food, or dropping their food around the tray. They may be opening their mouth for food eagerly while doing so. They're not fooling around and it’s ok for them to experiment.

But if they're turning dishes over or throwing food, hold the food tray down firmly. If they repeat these actions, then keep it out of reach for a while or stop the meal.

Avoid pressuring, threatening, bribing or negotiating with your little one. These are recipes to miserable power battles at every meal. Always be firm but do not show that you are mad.

Let the toddlers feed themselves early. They like to have control, so let them have it.

Most babies show ambition to manage the spoon by age 1. If given the opportunities to practice, they can do a good job by 15 months.

When the 1-year-olds can feed themselves, let them take over completely. If you go on to feed them the food they do not bother with, you build a sharper distinction between the food they want and the food you want them to take.

Serve a well-balanced diet with a variety of healthy wholesome food.

If you serve a well-balanced diet, which includes foods your toddlers presently enjoy, and let them feed themselves entirely, chances are he or she will strike a good balance from week to week, even though he or she may shun this or that food at certain meals.

If you serve a variety of healthy food for them to choose, there’s no need to worry that they will make a ‘wrong’ choice.

Stop spending too much time worrying about whether they are getting enough vegetables, protein or certain nutrients as they refuse to eat certain foods.

There is no need to consult your child what they'd like to eat. You should realize by now that “No” is probably their most commonly used word. Simply plan a well-balanced meal and serve a variety of healthy food. No drama. No pressure.

You may include new food but remember that it's common to take 10-20 tries for a toddler to take it up. Do not pressure the child. Instead, you can casually suggest your toddler to try one bite. Let them know that if they still don’t like it, it’s ok that they don’t finish it.

There are also growth and development reasons why young toddlers may seem to prefer carbohydrate-rich food to proteins. Their brains are fast developing at this age, which utilizes a lot more glucose.

While they may need and prefer more carbs, it is not to say that we should only serve carbs. It is still important to serve them a well-balanced diet but we need to do so without pressure.

If they're showing aversion to protein/meats, you can to mix them with carbs. Their aversion may also be that they find the meat too hard to chew or that they're not used to the texture.

In these cases, you can try grounded beef or shredded chicken thigh, as well as encourage the child to experiment with the food by first touching it.

Eating Together

Having your little toddlers eat with the rest of the family is a great way to allow them for social interactions as well as learning opportunities by modelling after parents and older siblings.

By now, you'd realize that the little ones learn by observing and imitating what we do. The same applies to eating. They may be willing to try new foods if they observe the rest of the family enjoying the food or if they see their siblings willing to taste new foods.

It may be messy at first, but don’t worry about it. Babies want to eat more expertly and neatly by themselves, just as they want to try everything else difficult that they see us doing. 

Tip to avoid mealtime battles

Here are 3 Common Feeding Mistakes to Avoid:

  1. Praising them for finishing the food

The problem of praising toddlers when they clean out their food trays is that the kids end up not learning when to stop and eat past fullness. The amount of food intake should be decided by the toddlers.

Encourage them to pay attention to their tummies so that they learn to recognize feelings of hunger and satiety.

  1. Using dessert as a reward

“Few more bites and you will get your dessert…”

Are you making the common mistake of bribing your toddlers?

The problem with using sweet treats as rewards is that it reinforces the young toddlers’ perception that the sweet treats are appealing while healthy food are punishments. As a result, they're less interested in healthy food and the reason they finish their food is to get the dessert.

Another tip is to serve the dessert together with the meal. Initially they may finish up the dessert first, so be sure that you serve only 1 serving and no second helpings. This helps to level the playing field between the dessert and main dishes. Over time, the little ones will learn to enjoy the whole meal.

  1. Constant snacking

Constant snacking often ruins or disrupts the toddlers’ appetite and makes it harder for them to respect mealtime. Parents should set a routine when it comes to snack time and meal times, as well as designate the area where the eating should take place.

However, there should still be some flexibility. For example, if the day’s activity is more strenuous than usual and the child is hungry earlier than normal, it’s perfectly fine to snack when their body needs extra food. Moreover, if you're serving healthy food such as fruits, nuts, cheese, small amounts of cereals and crackers, there’s less worry about over snacking compared to junk snacks.

Also, if the toddler had refused dinner, do not feed them with a snack later in the evening or night, or else they'll learn to think that it’s ok to hold out dinner for their favourite snack. Instead, serve them the leftover from dinner.

Tips to Encourage Toddlers to Try New Food:

Toddlers are notorious picky eaters and sometimes fearful of trying out new food. It is a bad idea to force them to eat but there are many interesting ways to encourage them to eat more or try unfamiliar food.
  1. Muffin Tray Meal
Serve the meal right out of a muffin tray. Place the different types of food in each compartment. Do include a variety of food that your toddler currently enjoys and new food that you'd like to introduce to them.
  1. Mini-sized or cookie cutter shaped
Create mini-versions of the regular pancakes, muffins, sandwiches, or use a cookie cutter to cut them into cooler/cuter shapes.
  1. Food pictures
You can easily find many creative ideas around Pinterest about creating cute food pictures.
  1. Involve them in grocery shopping and food preparation

Involving the toddlers in the process of food preparation so that they also get to experience and learn about the food through their sense of sight, smell, taste and touch. They will also get to see what’s a healthy balanced diet should be like.

They will also pride themselves with being involved in the dinner preparation for the family, hence more likely to enjoy what they’ve prepared themselves