Dodging A Toddler Food Fight

Hi Janet,

I’m hoping you can help me and my wife and give us some advice in regards to some recent food issues with our 18 1/2 month old daughter, Tessa.

When we put Tessa on solids a little over a year ago, she took them with fervor. She ate up everything. My wife worked like crazy and made all of the baby food ground up from organic veggies. Tessa loved everything. As time went on, we added turkey meat, eggs and other foods. Tessa continued to like everything. 

Now in recent months, Tessa’s not eating as much as she was and she is incredibly picky. We’re wondering what happened to that little girl who devoured everything at all her meals. Today for lunch, I made her scrambled eggs with green beans and cheese. Eggs were always one of her favorites. Today, she put a few pieces and immediately spit it out. I waited and kept encouraging her to eat and telling her she likes eggs. After playing with them for about five minutes, she put another piece in her mouth which of course, she immediately spit out and then cleared her entire tray of food onto the floor. 

Our mealtimes are increasingly becoming this type of battle and it’s wearing on me and my wife. We spent a week in Portland last week and every meal out was a nightmare to the point we started getting food to take out and eating in our hotel room. 

I thought teething was the issue for a while so I was willing to give Tessa a break and offering different foods, but now I’m worried this is going to become a habit and I’m hoping for some help.

Thanks  Janet!


Hi Chris,

I love toddlers.  Open, aware, sensitive and intuitive, they’ve had us pegged since their first weeks in our arms, and we now begin to discover how truly brilliant they are.

First, as I imagine you’ve done already, rule out any possible medical issues by checking with your doctor, especially if Tessa is losing weight or not gaining properly. But even if she does have a digestive issue of some kind, the family goal is for mealtimes to revert back to being a peaceful, comfortable time to focus on eating and each other rather than a battleground. Here’s what I’m guessing may have happened…

Blessed with doting parents who value healthy food and  “worked like crazy” to give her la crème de la crème from her very first mouthful, Tessa responded beautifully and rewarded her parents’ efforts by eating with gusto. At mealtime, the family was not only refueled by delicious food, it was an unadulterated success for everyone. Happy times.

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.

At the same time, because she is secure in her parents’ love, Tessa is beginning to explore some areas of interest two year olds are fond of – testing, independence, power, control, will. Fun stuff.  This stage of development is trying for parents. It takes practice to find the healthy balance of power with a toddler, but resisting her parents and asserting herself is exactly what Tessa should be doing. She’s right on track.

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.

Here are my suggestions for a truce.

Don’t invest or anticipate.

Lower your expectations about mealtimes with Tessa. (After your recent experiences, this probably goes without saying!) This isn’t the time for you or your wife to prepare meals for Tessa à la Julia Child and set yourselves up for feeling disappointed and unappreciated. Do that when it’s just the two of you, but for Tessa keep it simple.

Since you’re human, you may be projecting your anticipation (or even dread) of a scene at mealtime without realizing it.  When we’ve been dealing with weeks of resistance from our children, whether it’s about eating, diaper changes, going to bed or whatever, we can’t help but project trepidation, which can make matters worse. Since toddlers sense our feelings, wiping the slate clean and projecting confidence and calmness works best. Likewise it helps to…

Temper reactions and responses. Be aware of subtext.

Make eating solely about the relationship between Tessa and her tummy. Don’t get excited when she eats well, disappointed when she doesn’t, coax or encourage her. For now and the future, be careful not to give Tessa the impression that the amount she eats pleases or even affects mom, dad or anyone. Instead, encourage her to focus on her physical needs — her appetite and sense of fullness — by staying neutral. This requires tempering feelings, curbing both enthusiasm and worry. Since our toddlers are very, very, very smart and can read between the lines, we can’t even give them the gentle reminder that they like eggs without them sensing our agenda. Believe it.

I’ve had parents in my classes with underweight toddlers — one who was even told the child had “failure to thrive”. Imagine how challenging it was to stay neutral when food was presented and not worry. One mom realized it worked best to leave the room and let her toddler eat meals with just her older sister whenever possible until the toddler gained enough weight for the mom to be able to stop projecting tension. I’m not suggesting anyone do this, just illustrating the powerful effect we can have.

Give choices and small portions.

Present less than you think Tessa will eat – very small amounts of 3 or 4 types of food. Keep the rest handy. Let her eat as much or as little as she wishes and be the one to ask for more. What she chooses and how much she swallows has to be in her control.  Be sure to let her know that when she signals she is done — slows down, starts fiddling with food or (ahem) throwing it down — mealtime is over and she won’t have another opportunity to eat until the next meal or snack. This isn’t punitive, it’s giving her the autonomy, choices, limits and consequences she needs.

Try not to get angry or annoyed if she acts out with food. Keep your cool and say something like, “Hmmm. You’re spitting. You must be telling me you’re done.”  Then follow through with conviction by taking the food away and kindly helping her out of her chair, always telling Tessa what you are doing.

Switching out a highchair for a toddler-sized table and chair or stool works wonders to eliminate eating battles. For details and a brief video demonstration, please see Baby Table Manners.

Let go and trust.

Channeling Marianne Williamson: ‘trusting and letting go’ are recurring themes for parents, too, and it’s always a struggle to figure out how and when to do it.  Toddlers sometimes lose their appetites when they feel pressured around eating (or get constipated when they feel nudged to toilet train), but they don’t go on serious hunger strikes. Project trust, be okay with it even if Tessa skips a few meals, and she’ll be back to normal again soon, and onto testing elsewhere!

Bon Appètit!                                                                                                                                                                             Janet


 I offer a complete guide to this respectful approach in

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This is great advice that I need right now! Things are better than they were a few months ago but there are still evenings where mealtime is Mom vs 3-year-old. Some nights have escalated to epic battles, unfortunately.
    The strategies you listed are about the only things I haven’t tried! I wish I had realized that the whole punishment/reward thing would not work for this. Oh well, live and learn!
    Thanks for giving me some new ideas!

    1. You’re welcome! Yes “live and learn” is all we can do. And it’s never too late to make changes and use the opportunity to show our children we’re human and make mistakes. Making adjustments in the way we do things and sharing our process with our children can be a great learning experience for everyone.

  2. Roseann Murphy says:

    Janet, I could not agree more. Your response and your suggestions are right on and to the point. Food can truly become a control issue and interestingly enough, parents seldom win.

    Your suggestion of small meals with just a few items on the plate was excellent. By holding off speaking of what Tessa eats, what she likes etc. will take all the power away from the food. These wonderful parents can focus on their own meals and conversations and before they know it she will be back eating as before.
    Children do go through periods where they eat less. I also suggest they continue to serve the foods they always have and not offer new or different foods…just stick with the routine as always and everything will work out.

    Your sage advice of \”trusting and letting go\” is very true when it comes to control issues such as food and toilet training.
    As always, loved the article..and the response..

    1. Good advice, Roseann, to keep foods (and everything) as familiar as possible for toddlers, especially when they’re dealing with transitions or other difficulties. Thanks!

      1. Lauren Brauer says:

        Hi, Janet- As a pediatric dietitian, I would also refer your followers to child nutrition and feeding expert, Ellyn Satter’s advice at I’m not sure if you are familiar with her work already as your advice is mostly in line with hers from what I can tell, but you might also note to your followers that most children go through some kind of change in eating habits during toddlerhood (a pickier phase usually), simply because of entering that developmental stage and having various degrees of food “neophobia” (experts think this might have been protective from an evolution/survival perspective when babies started toddling away from parents and encountering berries/seeds on their own in hunter/gatherer times) and of course their desire to exert autonomy like you said. So the less parents see this as abnormal and just a normal developmental stage that will pass, the less they will worry about the dramatic shift. And there is a lot of feeding research showing that pressure to eat backfires and makes kids eat worse, sparking power struggles and potentially affecting the child’s nutritional status. See her page here about feeding by age/stage, especially the almost toddler/toddler stages.
        Structured meals and snacks are important and still the parents’ job to provide, and then parents need to respect child’s autonomy around whether to eat and how much at those times.

  3. These are all great suggestions! I have found that plates with sections on them are good for having distinct food choices for mealtime. In one space, protein & veg, in another I put fruit, in another there’s a starch. I agree in not giving too much food up front, that way there’s less waste if the child decides they don’t want to eat.

    If my daughter (who is 29 months) is finished eating and has already left the table, then asks for more food I always say “kitchen’s closed.” She has learned that what I give is what she gets. And no short-order cooking. What is served is it and if she doesn’t want it, sorry. There’s always next meal. That being said, I typically try to give her the option of deciding what we eat (cottage cheese or hummus? Eggs or soup? Oatmeal or waffles? Etc.)

    Some days/weeks my daughter eats EVERYTHING and wants more, more, more. Other times she picks and is done. I let her dictate within my parameters. Just breathe and smile!

    1. Sounds like you’ve got the eating thing down! Good idea to use plates with sections.

  4. Janet, Such wonderful advice, and it works! I remember having a little girl in RIE class whose Mom predicted she would not join in snack time because she didn’t like bananas. In fact, Mom said the little one didn’t like and wouldn’t eat much of anything at home.

    Much to everyone’s surprise this little girl not only joined in during snack time, she was always the last to leave, and she eagerly accepted, ate and asked for more banana every time.

    Of course at RIE class, we follow the guidelines you’ve outlined in your post, and the little girl’s eating got better at home when her Mom started to try out some of the techniques and attitudes she was learning in class.

    I remember Magda saying,”Your job as a parent is to offer your child good healthy food at regular times, and your child’s job is to decide if, and how much of that food to eat. Never should you coax her to eat even one bite more than she wants.”

    It seems like with so many other things, it comes down to the question of who is in charge, or maybe- who should be in charge.

    When it comes to food and how much to eat, toddlers need us to trust them and listen to them- to care for them by doing our part, and then getting out of the way, and leaving a little room for them to participate in the whole process.

    By the way, I always recommend parents read Chapter 16 of the book called Momma Zen by Karen Maezen Miller. Entitled Just Eat, Let Food Be Food, it’s 5 pages of “food for thought” that will bring a smile to your face.

  5. Janet: a very timely post as Audrey has been putting up a stink lately at meal times, rejecting everything but yogurt and applesauce. At least the yogurt is plain and the applesauce unsweetened. I read this post to my husband and we are going to start fresh tommorow. She is healthy – we need to stop worrying. Eventually she will eat veg and non dairy protein!!

    1. Kathleen, thanks for reminding me of an amusing favorite children’s book: Bread and Jam for Frances (which is all she’ll eat). You might want to get it at the library for Audrey!

      Even much older children go through phases when they only want to eat one or two things. As long as it’s reasonably healthy food, I tend to trust children to crave what they need.

  6. I just had to come back to say that, one day after reading this (and reading it to my husband this morning) we had a successful breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs! Might not sound like much, but this little man hasn’t eaten eggs in months 🙂
    Obviously, what I am really excited about is the switch we’ve agreed to make regarding mealtime. We’re just going to build on the nice, quiet family breakfast and lunch we had today and relax and let go!
    I know the trap I fell into was an easy one, I was punishing inappropriate behaviour at mealtime, like throwing forks, over turning plates or yelling, and the focus became the power struggle, not the food. I was afraid if I “lost” the battle at mealtime, other “losses” would follow. I can see now that isn’t the case.
    Thanks again!

    1. Cheryl, I can’t thank you enough for sharing this story and making my weekend! I think the key is to give firm, but kind logical consequences for acting out (like “the meal is over”) rather than be punitive or engage in battles, especially surrounding biological functions like food, going on the toilet, and sleep. If we don’t engage, and project calm authority instead, there’s no one to battle with.

      I’m happy for you and your son. Please keep me posted!:-)

  7. My oldest son hit this stage of eating, around 15 months. I knew he liked these foods but was choosing not to eat them. So, what’s more fun than dips? We would give him ketchup, a salad dressing, hummus, honey, various dips at every meal. He went back to eating every single bite again! And really has never looked back, but we did wean him off the dips and dressings after a few months so that it’s a treat now.
    My 13 month old son is now refusing to eat much of anything besides starches and apples, so I’ll be trying more of your tips. He was also labeled FTT, since he was barely 18 lbs at a year. But, the doctors are more concerned than I am. (we eat mostly fresh foods, barely any processed) and I have also walked away and let him in his high chair with his meal because sometimes he’s a slow eater or sometimes he tries to be funny if we’re there (safely within hearing/seeing distance of course!).
    Another thing I’ve learned is to always have something they like on the plate, even in tiny portions so that if they’re very hungry they will eat that then try a newer food, or one they’re not that fond of, without being so hungry they get angry over it.
    And try silverware, like the booster seat at the table, that can work wonders for having them try new foods or eating more.

    1. Krysten, great tips and wonderful attitude! Thank you!

  8. “This Too Shall Pass” should be the mantra for raising children-as a mother of 5 with 4 grown children AND a 19 month old toddler- if I have learned anything in 26 years of parenting it’s that- if you make a big deal out of something it becomes a big deal. Our toddler spent dinner two nights ago with her eyes closed (so we couldn’t see her-ha ha) and moving her corn kernels ever so slowly off her plate and onto the dining room floor. Tonight the one and only thing she ate on her plate? You guessed it -her corn. Don’t sweat the small stuff and IT’S ALL SMALL STUFF!
    To help with her changing food mood swings I keep a variety of healthy fruits and snacks on her little table that she can help herself to. She also has a highchair that allows her to eat at the table (not separately on a tray) and we recently took off the seating guard so that she can climb up and down the chair herself (she was starting to balk at the highchair and wanted to sit in a real chair) and even that has helped make a difference at mealtime. Good luck to you and believe me before you know it you will be wishing for problems this simple again like when she goes away to college and wants to get an apartment with her new boyfriend or changes her major 3 times-ha ha!

    1. Thanks for this wonderful wisdom! Yes, “This too shall pass” is a mantra that Magda Gerber and others reminded me of constantly. I still need to hear it. My baby turned 18 today, and we still choose our battles (like allowing her to visit girlfriends in Colorado, but not a boyfriend in San Francisco) and we try not to sweat the small stuff. Life’s short.

  9. Hi Janet,

    I just wanted to say thank you for your wonderful and helpful response. Your advice helped us refocus and cool off so to speak so my wife and I are very appreciative.

    On Sunday night, Tessa had a good dinner. We followed a lot of your advice: smaller portions, more choices, etc… and overall it was really smooth.

    The big thing for me was going to be Monday breakfast and lunch. Again, for breakfast I gave Tessa choices: cut up banana, grapes, some puff cereal and peanut butter on toast. This might have been the first meal in some time with hardly anything on the floor. It went great and really helped kick off our day. Lunch wasn’t as good but Tessa never eats a big lunch so it was fine. Dinner was fantastic. Tessa ate her eggs (yes!) and devoured some cut up tomatoes as well.

    Again, thanks so much. It was just nice to have someone help ground us a little (Like telling myself this will pass & it’s not the end of the world) and give us some nice hints to build up our confidence.

    1. Hi Chris,

      You’re so welcome. I love it when parents ask questions because it helps me know what to write about! You have wonderful instincts and obvious adoration for your daughter. Hard to go too wrong from there. Just be careful, even for yourself, not to think of meals with Tessa as successes or failures. They are what they are. It’s all good.

  10. Just wanted to mention to Chris that toddlers will “act up” at meal time if they are not eating the same things as the rest of the family. A toddler doesn’t need a special diet anymore (unless there are medical concerns) and things shouldn’t be so chopped up tiny that they cannot pick them up. That can lead to frustration. We have always had our kids eat whatever we are eating, within reason. It’s easier on us when making a meal and then they do feel a part of the meal instead of realizing they have “baby” food, etc.

    1. Thanks for the comment Krysten. We realized about a month ago that might be an issue so we’ve all been eating the same meal and it has helped. I think one thing I discovered w/ Janet’s help was to allow Tessa to be a little more independent at meals. I realized this morning that if I try to feed her something like applesauce, she’ll spit it out. Then I walk away into the kitchen to get something and come back and she’s eating the applesauce with her spoon. I know it sounds like a no-brainer but when the food issues starting getting to be a problem, I think we definitely made it worse by forcing the issue and trying to feed her more, which cut off her independence, hence the huge tantrums.

  11. I just wanted to say this is a great article. When our son started solids, we took the baby-led weaning approach, and part of this approach is allowing him to choose what he eats and feed himself.

    He ate all kinds of nutritious foods, and then he did go through a picky stage. We remained neutral and allowed him complete control of what he put into his mouth (provided it was on the table…no special requests). I always tried to include something I knew he would probably eat. I always gave him some of everything, even if I didn’t think he would eat it. Eventually, he’d get curious and try it, or try something again that he had decided he didn’t like for a while. Sometimes at snack time I would let him eat alone, and he actually did seem to eat more this way. I also noticed he was more likely to eat vegetables when they were given to snack on before a meal or if he was helping me with food prep and taste-tested what we were chopping up.

    He’s 28 months now, and loves quite a variety of nutritious foods, including lots of vegetables! I attribute it to allowing him control when it comes to what he puts in his body.

    And I think it’s nice that we’ve never ever had to have a food battle.

    1. Lisa, thanks! And it sounds like you really have a great handle on the food thing.

  12. HI Janet,

    I am a new follower and totally agree with the above approach. One area that I question is having our 17 month old leave the table when she’s done (so far she is patient by nature and has no problem waiting for dinner to be over). Her cousin was allowed to run free during mealtimes and was always very disruptive during family get togethers; he still is at age 8 and we do not want our daughter to develop the same behavior! What are your thoughts on this? (And thanks for all the great guidance you are providing in general!)

    1. Hi Aly,
      Thanks for reading! Wonderful that your girl wants to stay with you at the table. Some toddlers are able to, others aren’t. Infant expert Magda Gerber believed in realistic expectations, and would usually advise giving toddlers an earlier mealtime, rather than dining with the parents. She often said, “Toddlers are able to eat, unable to dine”. When toddlers are stuck in highchair and they are done eating, they sometimes throw food down, etc. But, if I were you I would definitely keep doing what you’re doing as long as it works! And yes, I agree that an older child (beginning at 3 or 4) should be expected to stay at the table.

  13. Janet,
    I can’t wait to use these suggestions. My 16 month old son has always been a little difficult with ‘meals’ since breastfeeding. And as of a few months ago it got progressively worse–i can relate to everything everyone has been saying. Then a couple of months ago we discovered that putting on a baby einstein video worked like majic. I know, i know, that’s terrible but we were at our wits end–the problem is that now it’s become a habit, just as much for us as it is for him. He eats his food quietly and eagerly. When the movie is not on and i’m trying to get him to eat i fall victim to all of the things you say not to do. I reward him with a big “yay” when he eats a bite, i get frustrated when he doesn’t, i probably put too much on his plate and i am disapointed if he doesn’t eat it all so i tend to try and trick him and shovel it in his mouth.
    So, clearly we have a lot of work to do. I am going to start with your suggestions tonight–forego the video and try to relax. Maybe with every sip of wine i have to relax he will match that with a bite of avocado, or turkey, or tomato. Please let me know if you have any more suggestions regarding the video-eating situation. Thanks.

    1. Megan, Love your honesty! From the responses I’ve received to this post I’m realizing that eating issues are a pervasive problem. Don’t be hard on yourself! Your plan sounds good. I would definitely cut out the videos, but also give warning and acknowledgement about it (with confidence, not trepidation). Say that you know he used to watch the video while he ate, but you decided that’s not healthy for him. Now you will stay with him in case he needs something. If he complains or asks for the video, just hold strong and acknowledge, “I know you used to watch the video and you want to, but we aren’t going to do that again. I’m sorry you’re upset.” Or something like that….

      Maybe you’ll think of something to talk to him about, or just stay there quietly without any agenda other than your attentive presence. He will probably end up appreciating your attention when you are relaxed, letting go of any care about how much he eats.

      Please keep me posted on how this works out! Thanks!

  14. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for the article! I really have some work to do about the eating too.

    I always used to feed my son the meal I wanted him to eat whether he liked it or not. I wanted him to ‘get used to it’ so that he wouldn’t make it any harder for me with the preperation of the meals. I have to think very hard already every day about what I am going to cook that day and if I have to make various dinners I am making things very hard for myself. But now I understand that in fact it is my problem and my son shouldn’t be the victim of that.

    Most of the time my son eats very well. Lately he didn’t want to eat some things but when he gets to eat them himself he eats good. Now I try to just relax and keep it up to him how much he eats. I always worried that he wasn’t eating enough and that if I didn’t try him to get a couple more bites he would wake me up at night to ask for food. But that is because I don’t serve different foods so if he doesn’t like what we’re eating he doesn’t have a choice to eat something else. I’m wondering what the other parents make for dinner. I think I should google about what I can serve and how much my son with his 22 months should each every day.

    Then about the dining. Some times I give my son to eat first and then me and my husband eat. But then he keeps coming to us and wants to get what we are eating etc.

    Oh and, what about when people just don’t have enough income to buy many different foods and enough for the child to eat himself while you know that the half will get on the floor?

    And I read before that we have to have complete attention for the children with the feeding so that they can play independently thereafter. What does that really mean? What should we do and don’t do? If my younger son gets up at that time and is hungry also and needs to be fed, I feed both, but not without feeling guilty that I don’t have the complete attention etc……….

    I would love a reply!


  15. Also I forgot one thing; yesterday at the meal my son had 3 things to eat and they were all at his plate. He only liked on of them, ate that one and trew his plate with the other 2 things on the floor. So I said: ‘I think you are ready eating because you threw your plate on the floor.’ I got him out of his chair and told him to go play.

    Later he came back and asked for the thing he did like. I said ‘weren’t you finished eating when you threw your plate on the floor? Or did you just didn’t like the other two offers? If you don’t like the food you put it on the table, then Mommy can eat it. You don’t trow it on the floor. Let’s try again.’

    So I got him in his chair again and put the plate with the foods he threw on the floor in front of him again. He threw it on the floor again. I repeated that if he doesn’t like the food he can put it on the table and not throw it on the floor. I put it i front of him again and then he put the foods on the table and I thanked him. I asked him what he did want to eat and gave him what he wanted.

    And there you go, while waiting for the next portion he threw the foods that he put on the table before on the floor again!! I didn’t really have my day yesterday so my patience was gone. I said ‘I see that you throw the food on the floor again so I guess you are finished eating. And I put him on the floor.’ He kept coming back to me and asked me to pick him up but I said that I didn’t finish eating and he did so he should do something else.

    Its so hard the food-thing. Or actually the parenting-thing in general!!!

    1. Hi Ouarda! Yes, the food issue can be tricky. It sounds to me like you aren’t giving your boy enough clarity. Tell him beforehand that you do not want him to throw food. If he throws food, you will put the food away. Then follow through, even if he comes back one million times saying he’s hungry and wants more. (Okay, maybe give him one more chance with a warning, “if you throw food again, mealtime will be over). Sometimes we are so blind with worry about our children eating that we totally underestimate their intelligence and awareness. Be clear about you expectations — the rules — and your boy will be able to eat when he is hungry and eat the exact amount he needs. The necessary struggle is to keep our emotions out of the picture.

  16. Hi Janet

    I love the articles and comments but my issue is more my husband than my almost 3 year old son L! Dinner HAS to be eaten and if he doesn’t then my husband will tend to feed him. L will eat then without much pressure but I don’t like that it’s now a habit. I tend to dish up small small portions but sometimes even that isn’t working. I have a 10 month old so my focus is often on him at meal times, leaving L to my husband. We don’t like contradicting each other in front of the kids about the kids so I’ve kept quiet. It’s hard when we have different philosophies I guess! I too fall into the disapproval trap though so that’s something I have to work on.
    Thanks for the insights though, they help with working out how I want to do it – then the tricky bit is getting my husband on board! 🙂


  17. This is so helpful, Janet. I’m sure all who read this come away with tips that make mealtime more relaxed and enjoyable with their toddlers. One point I’d like to add. When parents are worried about their children not eating enough, they often let them graze throughout the day. This means that when a meal is served, tummies are not empty. There is nothing better than coming to a meal when you are truly hungry. Perhaps less snacks and shorter intervals between meals may be necessary at first, until “eating when hungry” becomes the norm.

  18. We just hit the picky stage with my son who previously would eat anything and wowed everyone with his joyful behaviour at dinner. Dinners are becoming increasingly stressful, especially for Dad, who grew up with certain expectations about dinner time behaviour.

    I am having a hard time about it because I was viciously abused over food. Not only made to eat things I didn’t like, but also shamed, sent to my room without dinner, and force-fed rotten food. Yes, rotten, spoiled food in my lunch every day until I finished it all. Yes, social services was called on that one. Dinner was a warzone in our house with a pair of alcoholics calling my brother and I all sorts of names.

    So, long story short, it’s very difficult for me to know what to do at meal times, and I just can’t seem to follow through. It’s interesting that my husband had already come to the conclusion that my son (20MO) should lose all food if he is throwing it on the floor or at us, and that should be that. I am more inclined to give multiple offers. “You threw it so it went away. When you are ready to eat, tell me.” He points, I give the food back after making eye contact and saying, “I will give this back. Are you ready to eat without throwing it?” He will nod (and sometimes nod NO, which is funny, as at least he’s honest!) BUT he often repeats the behaviour…

    I am just comfortable NOT feeding him for a whole meal, especially dinner, because the consequences are that he is then very hungry before bed time, eats a bigger snack, and cannot settle until 11o’clock. I don’t see that as a good alternative either.

    This one has me stumped. Last night, I did something I never have done before. He threw his bowl at Dad’s head (yes, Dad’s HEAD!) and so I, without saying a word (and focusing in my head on GENTLE HANDS, GENTLE HANDS!) picked up, and put him on his bum on the floor in the living room. I said, “If you throw things, you leave the table.” He was DEVASTATED, and cried real big tears laying on the floor. I had to force myself to count to thirty in my mind, and then I kneeled next to him and said, “Are you ready to come back to the table?” Big nod yes. And he needed a big hug. But he didn’t stop throwing things.

    It’s my husband he’s working up, and the behaviour is targeted at my husband, not me. I strive to make dinner a very light, fun time. Until about a week ago, it was very easy. If he threw food, we’d remove it, and he wouldn’t repeat it. He’d get the food back if he was early in the meal or not, if he was done eating, and we’d got to the point where we had got him to put food he was not interested in into a bowl separately, and not on the floor. This seems much more about testing, and we’re having a hard time with constinency.

    What am I doing wrong? HELP? Since the behaviour irritates Dad the most, and is for Dad’s benefit, should he do the disciplining? He thinks we should just take the food away, take him out, and game over. And I can’t bear that, I feel he is too young to then understand later why he is going to bed hungry, and if he eats late he’s up too late. Stymied!

    1. Sophia, your personal experience as a child sounds dreadful and I’m very sorry you had to deal with that. It sounds to me like you might be over-identifying with your boy and projecting some of your own experience into these situations. The behavior you describe sounds like very intense testing and it doesn’t seem that your son is getting a clear response from you about your expectations. Throwing the bowl at Dad is an extreme form of testing…which means his call for limits is not being heard. And what you describe as “devastated” sounds like typical meltdown behavior to me.

      I strongly suggest that you listen to your boy’s call for clear limits, and make a concerted effort to follow through. Children do not starve themselves. His patterns regarding eating, sleep, etc., will work themselves out in a day or two if you can be clear and confident. I understand how scary this is for you, but I hope you’ll let your love for your son inspire you to overcome your fears.

  19. This is very timely, as I’ve been struggling with getting my 18 month old son to eat solids. He was born tongue tied and clipped at 5 days after a diagnosis of failure to thrive. He was initially interested in solids at 6 months, and was great at feeding himself purees. But by 9 months, he was bored with those and wanted finger food. That would have been great if only he could eat them. For what is now half a lifetime, he has developed the idea that food is something that tastes good in your mouth but makes you choke and gag. Even though I cut his food into tiny morsels, he often ends in tears when he tries to eat. He usually manages to swallow a few bites a day, but mostly he still nurses.

    His growth has stopped, and he has not gained an ounce in 3 months. Therapists tell me to withhold breastmilk so that he eats, because “children won’t starve themselves,” but I don’t think he’s ever eaten enough to make the association that food is a way to satisfy hunger. He just works himself into a frenzy begging to nurse, and I can’t NOT feed my hungry child. It feels forced and wrong to me, especially when he doesn’t seem to understand any other way to make the pain in his tummy stop.

    I’m trying to find a doctor to clip his tongue again, and I’ve decided to continue nursing on demand in the interim. He won’t eat purees anymore, even when he makes it himself. (Ironically, he LOVES to cook.) Do you have any ideas for helping him understand that food is… well, food?

    1. Wow, Meadow, this sounds extremely challenging for you and your boy. I have not dealt with a situation like yours and would not know what to advise. I assume you’ve tried thicker and thicker smoothies, shakes and vegetable juices? Does he like drinking through a straw?

      1. He likes playing with straws, but not drinking from them. He loves to make his own smoothies, but he won’t eat them.

        For months, I was nonchalant about his eating, figuring he’d figure it out eventually at his own pace. More recently, I tried being enthusiastic about food and saying how yummy it was; that just resulted in him wanting to feed me more. :/

        1. It sounds like your son needs the help of an occupational therapist to work on an oral aversion issue.

  20. hi janet! thanks a lot for your article. it is the best i’ve read about this issue. i still do have a question. my daughter is a beatuful 15 month old tiny girl. she is trying to eat by herself (spoon and fork) and can’t wait to finally figgure it out without the meal droping. she is excited about learning and i let her of course. but she simply can’t eat as much by herself. i am not allowed to feed her, unless i distract her with the silliest things. she still refused to eat several times a meal and drops things on the floor a lot of times. i don’t want this. and i don’t want the atmosphere there is at meal times. i love to cook and i love to eat and i want there to be harmony (and that’s what she needs). but if i stop with meal time, as soon as she refuses to eat or drops things once, she has barely eaten anything. and she won’t catch up through the day, for snacktime and other mealtimes are the same. so when does she get hungry? at night. i sometimes find myself feeding her a banana at 4 in the morning for she is crying so hard. i don’t want this for her or for me! i would be so thankful for any advise!!!

  21. What great advice! It’s funny you mentioned the mom that had to leave the room for her child to eat because that was me. My trepidation was totally being projected to my son and he refused to eat foods that I knew he loved. So I would leave the food in front of him and leave the room. But I would sort of spy on him so he didn’t know I was watching, and before I knew it he was gobbling everything up! I only had to do that a few times before I realized it was my attitude that was stopping him from being comfortable eating. Next challenge, getting him to eat more veggies!

  22. The article was helpful. While my daughter is only 5 months, it will be here before I know it…and I’ve seen lots of battles with other parents/kids. The video was helpful, but I have a question…why feed the kids directly into their mouths? It seems to me that they have less control if they are offered the food /receive the food at the mouth (versus hand-to-hand). Seems like giving the child the opportunity to take the food in his/her hand also allows them the opportunity to feel the texture first which can be really helpful for some kids and then they can choose to put it into their mouths. (The babe in the center-left seemed take the food in his hand more often that the others.) Thanks!

  23. Hi Janet,

    I have been following your blog for about six months now, and your approach makes so much sense to me. I wish I’d discovered RIE when my now-five-year-old was a baby.

    I like this approach to meal time. I’ve always been a believer in the “I provide the healthy food; she decides what to eat” approach, but over time have gotten caught up in the “one more bite” fight. I’m stopping that this instant. But my question is around dessert. In our house, we have dessert (typically fruit) after dinner. And it used to be something we’d use to motivate our daughter to eat “one more bite.” How does dessert fit into this plan? When she’s decided she’s finished with her dinner, she can have fruit? I don’t want her to fill up on that, or know that dessert comes regardless of what dinner she eats?

    Thanks for your time.


  24. Janet,

    Thank you so much for this article. Meal times are a really big struggle with our nearly 3 year old. Like many he used to be a great eater, but not his tastes have become very limited. He also likes to graze throughout the day, and will get himself a snack (usually a piece of fruit) or will constantly be opening the refrigerator telling us he’s hungry. Starting today we are going to be instituting some new mealtime rules based on your recommendations.

    However, I do have one question. How do you handle requests for more of the type of food that the child likes when they’ve refused to eat the other food on their plate? Should I give a little more, or say no “seconds” until you’ve tried your other food?

  25. Hi Janet,

    This article is very helpful and I hope this was not already covered in the comments. We have a 15 month old who can be hit or miss with eating and I try not to worry too much about it. If he is not in the mood to eat, he will quickly start throwing food. We take away his high chair tray for a moment, give him one more chance and if he does it again, he comes out of the chair. Often times after this, I will offer him pieces of his dinner while he runs around and plays. He usually will eat most of the rest of his meal this way b/c he doesn’t have to sit still. I am wondering if this is a bad habit to get into. I want to make sure he eats enough and he is still young, but I wonder if I should stop this all together so that he gets used to eating separately from playing? He goes to bed around 6:30 so he eats on his own and we eat after him. So I could try to offer him to get back in the chair after more play time instead as his mealtime is flexible. Also, some nights he does absolutely fine in the high chair so its not a constant struggle, but lunch/dinner are more of an issue than breakfast.

    Thanks in advance for your help!

  26. Hi im really hoping i get a reply because i need help! My nearly 3 year old has been a picky eater for well over a year cant just be a phase! He wont touch a vegetable, not even sweetcorn! Ive tried putting the food out as a selection buffet style, ive tried plates with seperation parts, ive tried plonking a small portion of everything on the one plate. His diet is literally fish fingers, chicken nuggets, cheese, pizza, chicken sandwiches, pasta with particular sauce. Jacket potato? No. Lasagne? No. Spagetti with pesto! No. Egg anything, no. The meals he refuses i cook again every other week or so. Ive never asked him to try anything so that he gets his dessert. Whether he eats or not he still gets a dessert, usually yogurt.i do give two snacks a day and am thinking of cutting those. Ive been trying so hard to look like i dont care at all whether he eats his dinner-i just sit at the table, eating mine and feeding my one year old, commenting on how nice it is from time to time. He has seen me and my husband stressed about it in the past though and probably overheard countless conversations ive had about it to friends, family and nursery staff (refuses food there too-fish pie? No. Jelly and ice cream ? No etc etc…). He is active and gaining weight. I just keep reading that this food thing will pass, his hasnt…… Any help appreciated x

  27. We have the same issue as Rebecca (above). My daughter is 3.5 and has been in this phase for 2.5 years. I read Carlos Gonzalez’s My Child Won’t Eat (it started when her food intake dropped after an ear infection around the age of one) so I know how important it is not to react or make mealtimes into a battle. But she’s still very limited on what she will eat 2.5 years later. Her diet is not nutritionally balanced and she doesn’t try anything new so I don’t see how she will acquire new tastes. Do I just keep doing what we’re doing (offering her a healthy meal each evening) and hope it will improve in time? It’s difficult when you are told by health professionals that your child should be eating a minimum amount of various things for healthy development. Could you advise, Janet?

  28. Naomi I read the same book! My son is nearly 3 now and This selective eating (choosing to eat not very healthy food at all) has been going on for so long. I do obviously offer healthy meals but he will push those away and seemingly wait for the day I give him his beloved fish fingers and chips then devour that (but obviously not touch the token amount of peas I place with the meal!). IM trying to not be emotionally affected by the process of cooking a nutritious meal (tonight aubergine bake) and it going untouched but ITS HARD and not getting any easier!

  29. Great article. As an occupational therapist who specializes in working with families with feeding challenges, I’ve seen these situations play out many times. Janet’s advice is spot on. For parents who want more support along the same lines, I highly recommend the books and website by registered dietician Ellyn Satter

  30. This is what I need right now. My only question is, what is between meals when he’s hungry he asks for nursing? This has been the habit around here: doesn’t eat at meals, when hungry he asks to nurse. Should i refuse him? We’ve always nurses on demand and I’m not weaning yet.

    1. It is my strong belief that toddlers need limits around nursing…specific, routine times of day, etc. It does not work to nurse toddlers on demand, because toddler’s have a developmental need to demand in order to feel the safety of our limits.

  31. Yumnah Ras says:

    Hi Janet
    I love reading and sharing your posts, and I love your book too! I do follow many of the suggestions you offer, and people marvel at how ‘good’ my son is! My question to you is regarding the fact that I am still breastfeeding both my children. My son will be 3yo ins few weeks and my daughter will be 1. It is my belief, based on my experience with him, that breastfeeding for him is about our relationship. Often when he has not seen me all day or feels the need for an emotional connection, he asks to breastfeed. I don’t refuse, but I do ask him to wait sometimes, and that the moment circumstances allow, he can, and generally he understands. However I do feel that on occasion, he is so busy playing that he doesn’t want to eat, and it’s easier and more convenient for him to breastfeed, which I am not happy about. I do tell him, if you refuse a meal you will not have boob to make up for it. I tell him that until he has eaten an amount, he will not be having boob. I do feel a bit uncomfortable with this food negotiation but am really not sure how else to go about it. I have decided he will self wean and there are days when he looks ready and others when he doesn’t, and I’m alright with this for now. My general attitude toward his eating is, Don’t eat if you don’t want to, Don’t play or mess with food though, and I take his plate away (respectfully) when he shows signs of being done, and talk him through it. He went off food for the six months my daughter was exclusively breastfed and true to my hypothesis at the time, he started eating better once she started solids. Any input on above is appreciated!

  32. Elizabeth says:

    This, rejecting things that are different, thing is most likely a protective factor that may hearken back to a time when humans didn’t have the level of control over our environments that we have today (This still exists in some areas of the world). A toddler would not have the pristine play areas we can give them nowadays. They would be outside where rocks, sticks, dirt and plants, etc. would be at arms reach almost constantly. They would need to be wary of eating strange things. AND A toddler’s tummy is tiny in comparison to their bodies. It seems that the size of their stomachs doesn’t grow at the same rate the rest of them grows. They simply can’t hold as much food as one might think. If they are really not getting enough food, you could break things up into several small meals/snacks throughout the day.

  33. Thanks for the great article! My 2.5 year old daughter has always refused to eat vegetables. I started giving her a bowl with a small amount of veggies in it. Once she eats them, or at least some of them, she can have the rest of her food. Some days she gobbles them up right away other days she will sit there for 20 minutes before she eats them. I do the same thing with eggs in the morning. Do you think that’s okay to do?

  34. Rachel Marie Kizana says:

    Hey Janet,

    I’m going to definitely try all your advise in regard to toddler eating, particularly not showing any concern or excitement whether my son eats or not… I’ver tried everything bar starving him and just don’t know what to do anymore. His just turned 2 and I know that he will eventually grow and eat other foods besides Nutella and chicken nuggets but it does worry me. My question today though is different and I haven’t seen it anywhere online…. after his time on puréed foods.. when he could start eating finer foods in his own… pretty early in maybe about 10months if not earlier he won’t let a sooon go bear his mouth lol not from anyone nor himself so foods are now extremely limited. Any advice on this ?

  35. Lorraine Breheny says:

    The above is really timely for us. Our 2.8 yo takes ages to eat anything. I’m talking 60 mins to eat a single piece of toast or up to 2 hours to eat her dinner. Even if it’s her favourite foods. We’ve got into a pattern of cajoling, threatening and bribing which we know is wrong but we’re just so desperate for her to get through her food so we can get on with our day/evening etc. often she’s late to bed/daycare etc. The advice of removing the food when she eg gets down and walks away and her getting nothing else is great. Would you recommend we include milk in this? It continues to be her very favourite thing, it’s what she asks for if she’s tired, upset or hungry. At bed time she can often drink 2 or three bottles (over a few hours- we’re also at the awkward need to drop a nap but she’s not quite ready stage).

    Also, on some occasions where we have done this, after bed time she’ll often ask if she can finish her dinner. Would you advise pushing through to breakfast or giving it to her? Thanks in advance.

  36. Hi Janet,
    Thank you so much for this article. I have a healthy 19 month old daughter who LOVES to eat, which is a total blessing. However, I sometimes wonder if she’s eating too much – sometimes she eats adult-size portions. She’s on the 80th percentile for weight, so she’s on the bigger side. Do you think I need to be moderating the amount she’s eating? If so, how? Sometimes I am almost sure that she’s satiated, but she enjoys eating so much she just keeps going… thank you in advance for your help!

  37. I have a 2.3 year old who is very picky with food. I feel like I’m doing parts of meal times correctly after reading this and parts need remedying. We consistently put out a little of everything we are eating and 2 items that she will usually eat: cucumber and cheese. She generally ignores all the veggies, sometimes will try the carbs and tends to eat meat. She generally wants ‘more cheese!’ but after a second helping of cheese I cut her off. I don’t want her eating a huge amount of cheese at every meal!!! She usually says ‘Libbys done’ so we just let her go. I find that hard as I often see she is hungry and asks for milk instead. We have battles of ‘want mummy’s food’ ‘want that!’ Off anyone else’s plate but her own. We tend to try to set limits but sometimes fail. After reading this I will give those limits a better go. She also sometimes says ‘no!’ to coming to the table for dinner – we say ‘we are going to eat dinner, you can join us when you’re ready.’ It usually works in 5 mins that she chooses to join us. Other times I then put her plate on her own table in the lounge – that also sometimes works.

  38. Hi,

    You say to not give food until their next snack or meal but what do you do if this dinner time and the last meal of the day? My toddler with not eat dinner but then goes to bed and wakes up in a few hours out of hunger. Obviously during the day a snack or meal is only 2hrs away, here, her dinner has to stretch her into the next morning. Thanks.

    1. We are having this same exact issue. We were giving a bedtime snack of oatmeal, Cheerios, or yogurt, but decided tonight we are going to represent the meal she didn’t finish instead. Tonight she had a few more bites. We’ll see how the night goes. Interested in what you’re doing and Janet’s response.

  39. Hi Janet- I see in a few of your articles you suggest the toddler sized table. My 1 year old throws her food on the ground so I’d like to give that a try but it conflicts with other advise and my preferences to haves meal time together. I want us to eat as a family. Are you suggesting my husband and I take our meals at her mini table in the floor?

  40. Shaula Stephenson says:

    Hi Janet,

    Every expert says, Trust your toddler to know when they’ve had enough food. But what if they don’t? Our almost-3-year-old will refuse food even though he’s clearly hungry – whining, low concentration, and it’s his regular meal time. If that was it, I would be content to let him be, but within minutes of letting him leave the table in these situations he falls apart at the smallest provocation. Then he has a 15-20 minute tantrum, after which he finally calms himself enough to answer the question of whether he’s hungry. (Surprise! Yes, he is.)

    Feeding has been a challenge with him from day 1 – he was born at 37 weeks and had trouble staying awake long enough to latch or take a bottle – and so his current behavior is just a variation on a theme. As a result, a fair amount of tension has arisen around his eating. We dread the fights and have resorted to distractions to get him to eat.

    It doesn’t happen all the time but it’s awful when it does. And we haven’t learned trust that he knows his body best because so frequently he doesn’t. Any suggestions would be appreciated. We’ve tried most of the recommended solutions and none of them are consistently effective.

  41. Hi Janet,

    What are your thoughts on dessert/candy?
    Around here it’s a common rule for parents to let kids have dessert when they finish their lunches. How would you go about this?

  42. Elizabeth says:

    I am sorry if this has been covered but, I would love some advice on the opposite side of the spectrum. My 3year old daughter loves to eat and we have to be careful about portions etc. We were discharged from a dietician as she now back on the chart (below 95% on weight/also very tall). We try not to make it a big deal at meal times, but my issue is having to say no sometimes to more. I am terrified about giving her a complex about food but at the same time having to be mindful about not eating too much and what she is eating is really difficult.

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