Six Steps to a Peaceful Toddler Meal Time

Finding a Peaceful Way to Prepare Dinner - Peaceful Parents, Confident KidsOne of the most common topics of conversation and indeed concerns amongst mums in my mother’s circles has revolved around baby’s feeding issues. It starts off right after birth with worries such as ‘do I have enough milk?’, ‘is my baby getting enough to eat?’, ‘is it ok to give formula?’. This is perpetuated by the fact that practitioners seem to measure a child’s development at least in those early weeks mainly on weight gain. Fast forward a few months and anxieties start to grow about ‘when do I start my baby on solids’, ‘what foods can I give them?’, ‘what foods do I need to avoid?’, ‘Is my baby eating enough?’. And just to confuse us all, it is then suggested that we should be feeding our children whole foods that they can eat themselves and not puree that we can feed them from a spoon. And, indeed, food is certainly worthy of stress as we all try to give our babies the best nutritional start to life.

It is no surprise, therefore, that at some stage, our babies or toddlers are affected by some of our stress and may change their eating behaviours in response. This happened for us when our eldest daughter, Lucy, hit around 9 months of age (although, we certainly didn’t realise it at the time). Lucy was a pretty good eater but was never a big eater. I occasionally worried that she wasn’t getting enough food but generally she ate happily and without fuss. This all changed, however; seemingly overnight. Mealtimes became more akin to a battle field and those in charge of feeding her needed to ensure they were ‘suited up’ in appropriate apronware to repel the projectiles of food that soon flew through the air either by hand or straight out of her mouth! It became a very stressful time for all involved. It was only thanks to hindsight and an article highlighting changes that can happen with babies and their food, that I could see what may have happened to cause this shift in behaviour. And I have since set about making meal times peaceful once more using six helpful strategies.

At around the time food became an issue for us, Lucy had developed her first gastro bug. It was not overly serious but she had a night of vomiting followed by about two weeks of diarrhoea. Not being aware of the RIE approach to mealtimes, I had always fed Lucy as much as I could using distractions such as toys or keys or other objects to keep her attention whilst I spooned in as much as I could. At around the time she was sick, she went off her food almost altogether for a period of time. Concerned that she was not eating enough, I tried everything to get Lucy to eat her meals. I coerced her into taking ‘just one more mouthful’ with pleas of ‘come on darling, you like spaghetti’ and ‘if you eat this pea, you can have some apple puree’. It became a battle of wills fraught with emotions from us both. In her advice to another parent having the same issues with their toddler, Janet Lansbury had this to say, which helped me to see what might have been happening at our dinner table.

“Then something happened. Your guess is as good – or better – than mine: teething, a cold, a change of taste, or just a period of growth when Tessa didn’t have her usual appetite (children go through phases when they eat less). This change in Tessa’s eating caused her parents a teensy weensy bit of concern, her antenna picked up a “vibe” (with a toddler’s sixth sense, it doesn’t take much), and she felt some tension surrounding her and food.

Eating is an area Tessa controls and needs to control. She is the only one who knows when she’s hungry and when she’s full. She has to listen to her tummy and trust herself. Lately, mealtime has become a little too “loaded” for her to be able to listen.  She’s not trying to torture you; she’s just feeling her power and playing her role, which is to resist anything she perceives as pressure”.

Having read this and the useful advice which came along with it, I set about turning mealtimes into a stress free activity once again using these 6 steps.

1. Taking the emotion out of the food

By celebrating when Lucy would eat a mouthful or by pleading with her to eat her food, she was learning to associate her food with power. She knew she could control the situation to get reactions out of me. Meal times was not about eating to satisfy hunger anymore but rather, a game, a time to test boundaries. By removing the emotion and simply presenting her with the food, Lucy has now learned that when she eats it is about filling her tummy, not playing. In particular, I am careful with the language I use when she starts to play with her food. If I see her playing, I state very matter of factly “I can see you are playing with your food. Have you finished eating? Would you like me to take your plate to the sink?” She then has the choice to continue eating her food or have me clear her plate. If the playing starts again, I remind her that “I won’t let her play with her food and if she is not hungry anymore, I will take the plate”. Using this, we now rarely have an issue with playing with food. Lucy will still occasionally test this limit but by staying calm and consistent in how we approach it, it never escalates to tantrums by her or anger by us.

2. Allowing Lucy to let me know when she has had enough

I have stopped trying to use ‘tricks’ to get Lucy to eat. When mealtimes are on, toys and other distractions are put away so the focus is on the food. I now trust her to let me know when she has had enough and even if she likes the food. I let her know that it is ok not to like everything and I try to take note of the healthy foods she does like such as broccoli and corn and try to give her extra of these. I never try to get her to eat more than she is happy to eat of her own accord.

3. Offering smaller portions of food

This is a great piece of advice. By giving her a small amount on the plate, it makes it seem less daunting for her to eat. If she finishes what’s there, I always have more ready to refill her plate. Often now, I will put just one small piece of the vegetables that I know she does not like eg 1 pea, 1 little cube of sweet potato. Some nights she leaves them, others she puts them in her mouth and bites down before spitting them out again and every so often will actually eat it. I love that she still has the opportunity to try these things and I know one day her tastes will mature and she will happily eat her vegetables.

4. Including a variety on the plate

I know myself that if I eat a plate of the same thing, I fill up pretty quickly, but then can find room for some garlic bread or dessert or something with a different taste. I figure it is the same for my kids. I always try to give Lucy a variety of tastes and textures so that when she gets sick of one thing, she can try something different.

5. Not trying to eat with the children

In her book ‘Dear Parents – Caring for Infants With Respect’Magda Gerber suggests having dedicated meal times for children with adults eating separately later. I had always thought that eating a meal as a family was important and that the children would see us eating our food and try to emulate. The reality was always far from this, however.  It seemed that the children picked up on the small moments of inattentiveness when we would go to take a mouthful and choose those times to upend the plate or knock the cup of water on the floor. It was never the picture book moments I had envisaged where we each discussed our day’s events. Meals are one of those caregiving times where being 100% present with the child is necessary for them to be happy in their independent play later. Trying to eat and be present, is very difficult. Usually the meals go cold all round!

6. Limit snacks between meals

This was a big one for us. Snacks were used regularly in our household to ‘buy time’ when I just needed to get the last of the washing on the line or get the bags packed for an outing or in the car to keep the kids happy and quiet. Since discovering a much more purposeful and respectful approach to parenting under the RIE philosophies, I now find I don’t need to use snacks in this way and as a pleasant side effect, I have noticed that Lucy eats much more heartily at meal times. Not having snacks at the ready throughout the day also helps to reinforce to her the importance of eating the food presented to her at meal times.

Overall, meal times are now a much more pleasant time in our household. Both our daughters enjoy having us present with them when they eat and power struggles are now few and far between.

About Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

Hi, my name is Kate. I have been a Physical Education/ Maths teacher for 12 years and am currently taking some time out to be a Mum. I have two beautiful girls aged 2 and 1 (13 month age gap). I have learned that there is so much more to parenting than 'going with your instincts' and treasure all the rewards my children present to me everyday. I have a passion for sports and have recently discovered an addiction to sewing. Thank you for taking some time out to read my ramblings :)
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8 Responses to Six Steps to a Peaceful Toddler Meal Time

  1. Cheryl says:

    I love this post but don’t agree with number 5. My daughter eats best when we eat with her. She sees us eating the same food she has on her tray and happily dives in. If we aren’t eating with her she is much more difficult, even if we devote all of our attention to her. We have sat her in a chair at the table with us since she was 3 months old (although she just observed for several months) and I think it has helped to make her a great eater. She has always enjoyed it and almost always tastes (and eats!) whatever we give her. (Tonight she devoured rhubarb chutney!) I have many other friends who do not eat with their babies/toddlers and they are fussy, fussy eaters. I’m not saying that this is the only reason why, however, I do think babies/toddlers look up to their parents in many situations, including eating, for guidance and assurance.


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  3. Paulina says:

    I enjoyed this post but must disagree with letting kids eat alone. A family meal is about so much more than just the food consumed, it is also about the company, and about the way we eat. We were lucky, I think, to learn about baby led weaning early on, and have always had family meals. If you do not view the upturned plates as problem but rather a natural phase of exploration, you will soon see it fade away in favor of some lovely self-acquired table manners.


    • I totally agree, Paulina. I was sad to say goodbye to our family meals and it is definitely temporary. Unfortunately, it simply was not working for us at the time I wrote that post and for all our sanity’s sake, we had to abandon it. When the girls eat now we try to make it seem like a family meal in all ways except that we just don’t eat. We sit at the table with them and talk about our days etc and love the bonding time it provides us. Because the girls are asleep by 6-6:30, dinner is usually at about 5-5:30 for them at the moment and my husband and I were also finding we were having to eat again by about 8:30 haha! I am really looking forward to the time when a family meal works for us again. 🙂 Thank you for your thoughtful comment. xx Kate


  4. mymyblue says:

    I recently discovered your blog and thanks to you, the RIE approach and Janet !!
    I am reading your old articles when I have the time.
    I must say thank you for this one. My son TJ is 4 year old and a very fussy eater (since he was born) and actually we have found that (like you say in #5) eating seperately helps him a lot, and us too. Before I felt so guilty to have seperate meal time because it was not what the books were saying. I am so happy to read this article, I feel much better.
    Like you do, I have also found that giving smaller portion and a variety of food on the plate helps him, and taking the emotion out of the food too.
    We still seat down with him and his little sister eats too, but we, parents, don’t eat : we ask him about his day and have a nice bonding time. 🙂


    • I’m really pleased to hear that you have discovered RIE and Janet! Isn’t it a life changing discovery? It is so lovely to have that connection time with our children over their meals. Giving them our full attention at the table is very important when they are younger and once they become used to the meal time routine and a little more independent you can slowly start introducing food for Mum and Dad too. Thank you for letting me know of your success!


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