How to Not Make Mealtime a Battle...

Updated on January 05, 2012
H.1. asks from Des Moines, IA
16 answers

Hey Mommas

I have a 20 month old son, and admittedly, we sturggle at meal times. I offer him what we are having and always make sure that he has at least one healthy thing on his plate that I know he does like. He's not a good (but not terrible, I guess) eater especially at lunch and dinner. Usually our dinner time problems are playing with food, throwing it, dumping his plate onto table, and ust refusing to take bites (saying "all done" before even starting.)

Here's what we have been doing: If he throws or dumps food, I give one warning and then a 2 minute time out. After that timeout, I ask him if he wants to try again to eat and he usually says yes, so we try again. If I have to do a second timeout, he does not get to go back to the table afterwards. I have resorted to some bribery if he won't eat more than a couple bites - I do bribe ONLY with healthy things - for example, he loves broccoli and so if this is part of the meal, I will tell him he can have his next bite of broccoli if he eats a bite of chicken, or I will tell him to eat three bites of food before I let him drink from his big boy glass, etc. Ocassionally, he will get a bit of cottage cheese if he can eat 2 bites of whatever. I don't love that we do this, but sicne they are healthy things...? I don't really make him separate meals if he doesn't want what we're having.

I would appreciate any feedback on the techniques we are doing o rany additional ideas for not maiking mealtime a power struggle. What do you specifically do if your young toddler refuses a meal? Do you make them wait til next meal/snack time and if so do you offer a different food or the one they had previously refused? What if they skip you offer a pre-bedtime healthy snack or reheated leftovers? My sons loves healthy snacks so I think he would hold out for a yummy cheese stick befopre bed instead of having to eat our dinner.

Just this morning, he was throwing a fit because he wanted somehting other than the cereal I was giving him (which he typically likes) - I wanted to stand my ground and not let him dictate the meal, but at the same time.....I had an appointment in a bit and knew he would be hungry and fussy at the appointment (but didn't want to bring him snacks as that was rewarding his refusal to eat breakfast?!) I know he was hungry (saying "snack" and crying at fridge) but just didn't want what I was serving.what would you have done?

Arrgh, I wish there were clear and "right" answers for every parenting issue!

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answers from New York on

I would read Jane Nelsen's book " Positive Discipline for Preschoolers" (or toddlers or young children, can't quite remember the name of the book).

Also, try not to make mealtime a struggle. Put a tablespoon of a variety of things on his plate, tell him that if he throws the food around it will mean to you that he's all done (not in a threatening way, just in a that's the way it is way). Maybe he's not hungry and has had too many snacks before dinner. I would give my son dinner at 5pm at this age. No snacks after 4pm (granted he could eat more than a grownup, but that's something else).

Good luck!



answers from San Francisco on

I think what you're doing is fine except I would give the warning about not dumping/throwing food when I first sat him down, and if he did it one time, he would be down from the table. By this time, he knows he gets that first warning before any consequences so he'll push that first warning every time. I think it's time to switch the first warning to when food is served and then consequence for the FIRST time he dumps his food. Also, this morning, I would not have given in; maybe if he experiences what it feels like to REALLY be hungry, he'll think again before pitching a fit when he knows you have to leave the house. You're doing a great job, especially since he thinks of cottage cheese and broccoli as rewards!

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answers from Pittsburgh on

Honestly? I refused to let mealtime be a battle. If my son wanted down from the table? See ya. The food stayed there while DH & I ate. If he wandered back for a few bites, fine. If he skipped it completely--also fine. He could have cereal or a sammie or fruit later for a snack.
IMO, 20 mo. is too young to expect a really rigid mealtime routine. Others may claim differently, but that's my opinion. All I know is that after working all day, the LAST thing we needed in our house was dinner drama.
Oh--my son is almost 9--a GREAT eater now. Not picky, not obsessed, not stressed. And he asks to be excused from the table when he is done. I see no reason for him to sit there until we are finished.
IMO, the techniques you're using are too hard for a 20 mo old to "grasp" and the result is a confused, crabby, hungry kid--kind of the opposite of what you're going for, right?
Good luck!

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

My son, since 6 months old, was a SUPER PICKY eater. SUPER SUPER picky.
Unlike his older sister who ate anything and was more adventurous with food.

With my son, we, NEVER battled about it or food or eating. Nor forced it or punished him for it or scolded him or bribed him or offered 'rewards' or treats.
He never starved.
He was always, super healthy, solid as a rock, in the upper 97th+ percentiles for growth, and was fine.
Our Pediatrician had no issues or problems with is picky-ness either.

My son is now 5 years old. He eats all sorts of things and his palate.... on his own.... has expanded. His picky eating, did NOT get worse.
My son, eats according to his body's "cues"... for hunger or fulness. He eats when hungry and stops when full.
He is also a "grazer." Eating small amounts throughout the day. JUST like my Husband.
Some people, are grazers.
But to others "grazing" is snacking.
It is NOT.
Some people just eat small amounts throughout the day. This is actually a healthier way to eat. In fact.

My son, since a baby, will sit at the table with us to eat. He never threw food or had a tantrum about it or eating. BUT he was very picky.
He never threw fits or tantrums about it, because we never made, "eating" a bad thing.

My kids, eat snacks. Kids NEED to do that. They get more than just 3 meals a day. Snacks DO NOT spoil my kids' appetites for meal time.
They do have snacks before meals. But not AT meal time. It is BEFORE meals, after school, mid-morning, etc. or before bed. Like an apple.

We never, withhold food from our kids. We go according to our kids cues... and they KNOW their body.
They do not... eat out of boredom or because of emotional reasons.
They eat, because their body, is hungry.
That is how it should be. That is the healthiest way to eat. Not because a child is doing it for emotional reasons or to please others or to get a treat.
Even our Pediatrician said, that kids need to eat by knowing their body. Not emotional reasons.
Our kids are very lean and strong and healthy. Because, they know their body and eat or stop, according to their body's cues. And like all Moms, I don't cook nor serve junk food.
Last night, my son ate a whole big plate of Broccoli for dinner! He use to hate it, now he likes it. That is how kids... and adults are. Food attempts and likes or dislikes... changes. I personally HATE eating cereal every darn morning for breakfast myself. For example. But I don't punish myself over it.

We never had power-struggles about eating, with my son.
He now eats so many different things. And he is proud when he does.
And he continues to just grow and is lean and strong and very healthy.
He, never starved. Nor was he malnourished, just because he was a picky eater.

We just chose, not to make "food" or "eating" an issue.
Because, later, it affects a child and then as an adult, how they eat and view food and if their eating is dysfunctional. ie: eating to placate themselves. ie: emotional eating.

You might also read this article:

A story: when I was in elementary school, there was a Teacher there that forced the kids to eat EVERYTHING on their plate, in the cafeteria. She even, slammed a ruler down on the table and checked each kids plate and scolded them if they did not eat everything, and if not they could not leave the cafeteria. So, she made many kids cry. Including myself. I told my Dad. My Dad, then invited her to dinner, at our house. She came. It was good food. But, she did not eat everything. So my Dad said to her "You did not eat everything on your plate. You cannot leave our house until you do." She was aghast! But my Dad told her "That is what you do to the kids at school." And that, she better eat by her own rules, too.
Of course, many parents complained to the school about her meanness. And certainly my Dad. And she was disciplined, sharply.

If a kid only eats a couple of bites, so what.
A child/baby will not eat like you.
A baby/child, will not eat this way all their life.
I don't know of any Adult, that eats the same way, they did as when they were a baby or Toddler.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Minneapolis on

I have one daughter. I know that if I had several children, my methods would have to change. I am NOT into power struggles, especially about food. She gets choices. She gets to pick what to have for breakfast from a list of typical things. Young children need limited choices (cereal or toast? pancakes or waffles?) which can expand as they get older.

Don't make food and mealtimes a battle. 20 months is very young to get that he should sit and eat a meal a certain way. Just keep making sure he gets a variety of healthy foods during the day and don't sweat it.

My daughter (now 9) can and will sit and politely eat a meal, even though as an infant, toddler, preschooler, I was not at all rigid about behavior at mealtimes.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

I think at this age, choices are important. We offer our 21-month-old several options at each meal. Say yogurt, a bagel and fruit for breakfast. WE don't force her to eat as toddlers have very fussy appetites. If we're going out and she hasn't eaten very much I always take whatever she left over as a snack. Bagels, for example, are great to pack in the car.

When she was in her throwing-food phase, I repeated and demonstrated that "we don't throw food we don't want but put it aside." Luckily, that worked.

I don't want to use food as reward or punishment so if she doesn't want to eat I just let it be.

Good luck.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

My first instinct just at your title was to say "meal time is a fight?" but it sounds like you're doing all of the right things!

My kids have to eat as many bites of each thing that is on their plate as they are old - since typically for mine this stuff stopped around 3 or 4. I wouldn't make my 8 year old take 8 bites of 3 things if she didn't want to.

So maybe tell him he can have one bite of broccoli, one chicken nugget, and one french fry. Then one more bite of broccoli. Or maybe give him 2 bites of everything. If he finishes that he can have two more bites of everything.

I don't think you're doing anything's just the age.

Maybe at dinner he isn't hungry. Can you cut back on snacks? Or move dinner 15 minutes later?

I also give plenty of options for breakfast and lunch. I don't limit those meals. The kids have free range of cereal, oatmeal, poptarts, grits, eggs, pancakes, fruit, french toast, etc for mornings. Lunch is 90% of the time a sandwich...but they can have ham, turkey, PB&J, or PB&Fluff....then they pick their fruit or veggie, chips, and dessert. So give him two options maybe instead of picking what he normally likes. We all change our tastes :).

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

I tend to agree that at 20 months he just isn't "getting" it. I think mostly you are doing the right things by offering healthy things and all eating at the table, etc. My daughter was a great eater at this age, my son is just over 2 and has always been MUCH pickier than his sister. For him I always ask what he wants for breakfast, etc. He doesn't talk all that well and sometimes he doesn't really answer me so I always give choices. If he doesn't choose I choose for him. Sometimes he eats, sometimes he doesn't. He always gets a snack later, but I know that if he is really hungry then he'll eat. I've noticed that with my kids they usually eat 2/3 meals really well. Sometimes it's only 1 good meal, but most of the time 2(ish). Anyway, my point is if he's eating breakfast and lunch and a healthy snack, don't worry about dinner. I don't think at 20 months he'll "hold out" for a cheese stick. When I make dinner my kids are always allowed to supplement their dinner with cheese, applesauce, yogurt or fruit. This way they get to eat something if they don't like what I made but I don't have to prepare a different thing for them. Plus, they always eat a few bites of what we are having. I think you need to stay strong in the sense that you can't give into everything he wants but offer some choices as a compromise. He doesn't want dinner, then he can have yogurt or applesauce..whatever. Hang in there!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Oklahoma City on

Kids are people too and should have the right to say no to an adult. That is the thing we should be teaching them rather that "I am a grownup therefore you must obey me" which is not a good things for kids to be taught. That tells them that no matter what an adult tells them to do, they should obey it, even if it of a not so nice nature.

I think if a child does not like something they should be able to choose to not eat it. A toddler does need to try a variety of foods so they can develop a taste for different foods.

That said, they need to eat and forcing a child to sit and eat food they find disgusting is mean. I have been there, done that. I decided one day to fix foods the kids like. Foods that are appropriate for their taste buds. They get a meal, a snack, another meal, another snack, a meal, then a late snack before bed. In child care the kids are legally supposed to be offered either a snack or a mean every 3-4 hours maximum. I always let the kids have food, why would I want to teach them that food is powerful and has the ability to make one feel better about things.



answers from Pittsburgh on

We fed my son what we ate. That's it. He saw us eating and generally tried everything. Why wouldn't he - he saw us eating it. We did not make a big deal out of food and did not bribe or punish him. When he was at the throwing stage (which is a normal developmental stage) we said - 'I see you are done eating' and took the food away. If he said he was not done, we gave it back once. If there was throwing, the meal was done. It helped to only give a small amount of food at one time. We did provide him with appropriate things and times to throw and investigate gravity. At that age we did not serve fruit as a separate dessert course, we included it as a side. We probably started serving fruit as dessert instead of part of dinner when he was 3-4, simply because that is how we generally ate it before DS was born.

Things that are research supported:

Bribery doesn't work - toddlers tend to increase their liking of the 'reward' food and like the food they are bribed to eat less.

Repeated tasting is necessary for new foods. Most 'picky' toddlers need to try a new food at least 12-16 times before reliably accepting it. This is way more times than most parents try a particular food.

LIFETIME eating habits ARE formed at this age. Toddlers learn to become lifetime adventurous eaters or picky eaters. They learn to eat healthy foods and continue to attend to their physiologic satiety cues OR they learn to eat the standard American kid diet (hot dogs, processed foods, chicken nuggets and dessert) and start on the road to obesity and lifelong food issues. I would ignore the responses that tell you this is not an important issue and 'their picky eater' is fine now, statistically they are the exception.


answers from San Diego on

It only gets worse as they get older. When they can speak, they will say things are gross without tasting them. In my daycare, we have one or two that will say derrogatory things no matter how much effort we put into the lunch or dinner. All it takes is for one child to do this and sometimes we lose the whole group.

I've made the mistake of doing a lot of the things you talk about. But the truth is, you are making this battle worse.

Lately, I'm just over it. When they say something derrogatory, I grab the plate, feed it to the dog and order them out of the room. The next time we eat, they are usually much more hungry.

Lately, I have been trying to manipulate lunch by feeding a smaller breakfast and waiting longer to feed lunch. Sometimes it works and it depends on which kids I have.

I definitely believe that meal time is over if they... Say anything derrogatory, throw any food, or get up from the table. They won't starve. They truly won't.

However, I do believe that you should try and get a healthy snack in them and that it's okay if they hold out for the healthy snack. I refuse to give them empty calories if they aren't eating well. I won't do crackers if they are being picky. If they are not eating their lunch, then it better be cheese, yogurt, raisins, carrot sticks, etc..



answers from Houston on

I'm not sure that at 20 months a child can make the connection between not eating breakfast and getting a snack a couple of hours later. That's eons to them.

My girl is a great eater (yay!!) so I rarely have this problem, though it's cropping up more as she's asserting her independence more.

It's mostly at dinner, too, as she eats breakfast and lunch at daycare. There was a particular day that they couldn't get her to eat nearly any of her lunch or her afternoon snack. She didn't want to eat dinner, either, so I let it be. She ate fine the next day.

I suppose it could be time to start offering two choices and then not give in if he changes his mind. But again, I wouldn't withold a snack later - I really don't think 20 months is old enough to make a connection that it's a reward that they didn't eat when they were supposed to.

Of course, all this is assuming he gets a fairly routine snack, too. My girl has breakfast around 7, a morning snack around 9:30 or so, lunch, then an afternoon snack around 3. When we get home she gets a sippy of milk and that will typically tide her over until dinner. So, if she doesn't eat at one of her meals, she's getting a snack a little later and she wouldn't view it as a reward because it's routine.



answers from Los Angeles on

We fed our kids what we ate and if they didn't eat they could get nothing until the next meal or snack time and then it was what they refused to eat. All of my kids learned that they ate what was placed before them.

I see where there are mom that let the kids dictate what they are going to eat. We had 8 kids and my wife and I decided early on every one ate the same meals. Can you imagine preparing 9 meals every meal? We couldn't.

It all depends on how the adults feel about being parents and if the 2 year old is going to set the rules or if the adults are going to sdet the rules. I have one grandchild that didtates what the family is going to have for dinner. The mom refuses to use discipline and their child has made them very unhappy. But it was their choice.

Keep trying mom. You'll get there as long as you have decided you are going to set the menus, and not your 20 month old.

Good luck to you and yours.



answers from Chicago on

he is a baby. he is not old enough for mind games yet. Feed him and when he starts refusing the food (dumping it or throwing it) then food is done. Put it away. The time out thing is not going to work and neither is trying to talk it out. He won't starve. might be a pain at appts but bringing him a snack for later is not rewarding him. Bring snack stuff that is healthy. I would not do separate meals. give him what you have planned he eats or he doesn't and then move on to next meal time.

It could be that your giving him to big a portion. at his age a tablespoon of each thing is all that he really needs to have on a plate. snacks should not be given right before a meal. at daycares snacks and meals have to be 2 hours apart. so try for that time frame.

the food program suggests a fruit or vegetable/ grain and milk at breakfast (example cereal and milk and juice or fruit)

a fruit and vegetable, protein, grain and milk for lunch and dinner ex (chicken nuggets, potatoe, applesauce, bread and milk)

and snacks should be two of the following fruit / vegetable / milk / grain / protein (example cheese and crackers or milk and apple etc)

one of the hardest things in the baby / toddler stages is to get them to eat without over feeding them. Good luck.



answers from St. Louis on

honestly & seriously: any 20month old can understand how to behave at mealtime. Most 20month olds prefer not to....:)

Couple of things jumped out at me: this is not your first post about his eating habits. I've also noticed issues on behavior in general. I believe that's the starting point. My standard answer for this the "1-2-3 Magic" video. It will teach you how to interact & be in charge of your child.

You guys are already in an oppositional ritual with mealtimes. Typically, for this age group, they are struggling for autonomy. To aid in this (& to eliminate the dead-on battles), give your son 2 choices....not only with meal time, but also with toys/clothes/etc. You will find that your son will be happier when allowed to pick on his own. This is not catering to him, this is you making the initial choices for him. & trust me! He'll never "get" that point!

Also: when dealing with this age group....& most of childhood!....never, ever ask a "yes/no" question! Never, ever say, "are you ready to eat some more?" Instead, flip it & say, "okay, it's time to finish up our meal". As my 15yo son likes to say...."be large & in charge".

As for the timeout during mealtime.....NO!! You are allowing your child to achieve his goal of not eating, of being able to move away from the table!
I agree with the warning system, but then remove the plate....cover it & save it for the next meal. No snacks, no juice/milk, nada-nothing! A few rounds of this & your son will learn that you mean business...& that mealtime is mealtime.

I like your final comment! Sorry....not going to happen! (sigh)

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