Mouths To Feed- Toddler Mealtime Battles

Dear Gloria,

Every meal is a battle with our toddler.  He refuses most foods we consider healthy, so we just give him whatever he’ll eat.  His pediatrician says his weight is fine, but we worry that he’s not getting enough of the right things.  What can we do?

Steven and Kristy R.



Dear Steven and Kristy,

A good friend of mine has a sign in her kitchen that says:


Dinner Choices

1.     Take it.

2.     Leave it.


That’s all you need to know and that’s all your toddler needs to know.


But that’s not all I’m going to say because most parents resist this approach to dealing with mealtime conflict.  You either don’t believe it’s that easy or you can’t draw the line.  Either way, your toddler knows you aren’t committed.  And the battle begins.


Mealtime battles, however, are futile.  You can’t make a child eat any easier than you can make him poop.  You cannot win, so refuse to allow conflict at mealtime.  How?  When it comes to meals, you decide when and what and they decide how much.


A few teaspoons per meal can be sufficient.  During growth spurts, he’ll eat more.  Your job is to keep the fare “nutrient dense”.  In other words, if he’s only going to eat a teaspoon of something, a teaspoon of sweet potato is better than two french fries, two bites of banana are better than a fistful of “fruit puffs”, etc.  It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality,


Good meals are sabotaged by “fluff”.  If you allow your child to have juice and snacks between meals, he could meet his quota for the day with fluff and literally have no room for the good stuff you are begging him to eat.  So save the juice for constipation treatment and eliminate the snacks if your toddler won’t eat meals well.  When he is eating a variety of foods at meals, you can allow snacks as a treat.


So, what if he doesn’t want sweet potato?  Fine.  He doesn’t have to eat it, but he doesn’t get anything else.  Don’t panic and feed him whatever he’ll accept in the name of preventing starvation.  If he refuses to eat it, you say, “Ok.  I guess you’re not hungry”.  Meal over.  The key is not giving into a snack in between meals.  You can try again at the next meal with a hungrier child.


If he submits to a teaspoon or two of sweet potato, don’t applaud.  Meals are not about performance.  With a toddler, emotions about food - negative or positive - invite conflict and power struggle.  Remember, he’s in charge of whether or not he eats or poops.  He will wield this power.  So, if he submits, just smile and offer him more of his favorites after he has a little bit of everything you’ve prepared.


This is the stage in which you begin to learn about wisdom versus power.  Some battles are won by out-smarting them rather than over-powering them.  Welcome to The Dance.  It’s more fun after everybody knows who’s leading.


Gloria Dudney, RN, IBCLC, RLC is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has taught new parent classes for more than 10 years. 

Copyright 2007

Gloria Dudney, RN, IBCLC, RLC