Stop Making Mealtime a Challenge

In this episode: Janet responds to a letter from an exasperated mother whose toddler won’t cooperate at mealtime.

Transcript of “Stop Making Mealtime a Challenge” (courtesy of Torin Thompson, September 15, 2015)

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and in this episode of Unruffled, I’m going to answer a question about mealtime challenges.

Okay, here’s a question I received on Facebook:

“I am hoping for some instructive insight. Mealtimes continue to be a challenge. Here’s a new one with our 27-month-old. He now refuses to come to the table and sit down in his chair during mealtimes. We’ve tried to let it be and pack up his food if he doesn’t come back again later, but he ends up HANGRY.” (She has this in all capital letters. Now I learned something through this question, because I glanced at it and I saw this word “hangry” and first I thought she was misspelling the word, but then I looked it up in the Urban Dictionary and it does actually mean, and all of you probably already knew this, it means hungry and angry at the same time, like when you’re waiting in a restaurant and your food isn’t coming. So…Anyway, her son ends up hangry), “so now we are feeding him basically through distraction. At the windowsill, following him around in the park, in his ‘yes’ space while he’s playing, etc. When we do that, he finishes his entire meal, so clearly he is hungry, but I absolutely hate the fact that that’s what we have to do now. Perhaps we can be more consistent with limit-setting, but when he gets hangry, it’s so difficult to get anything done. Thanks so much.”

Okay, so what is going on here is first of all, “mealtimes continue to be a challenge.” Mealtimes ideally should never be a challenge. There’s no challenge involved. All that’s involved is we set up the situation the way we expect mealtimes to go. You know, I recommend sitting down, the child has to sit down and stay sitting down until the child is done. No throwing food, no playing with food, and that’s pretty much it, and the only food that is offered is food that the parent has deemed healthy for the child, small portions of each.

The rest of mealtime has nothing to do with us, it’s between our child and his tummy. Anything else that we are feeling around this or any agendas that we have, other than presenting mealtime and letting our child decide how much he wants to eat and leaving it at that, trusting our child to handle the eating part of mealtime, anything else we try to do is going to create issues, so there shouldn’t be any struggles, but there are, because this mother, and perhaps the father, too, they’re invested in their son eating a certain amount and they feel like it’s their job to get the food into him. Therefore, they’re creating a situation that is ruled by their son’s feelings and,basically, he’s got them over a barrel here, because they are so invested in getting food into his mouth, and what’s happening is following him around in the park, distracting… I mean, this is not how we want to treat our human person child. This is maybe seeing him as a wild animal and showing him that we’re just going to follow you around, but actually even a wild animal would sit and stop and pay attention to the food and eat if the wild animal was hungry, so in a way this is more like a plant. It’s up to us, we’ve got to get that plant food in there or this plant is going to wither. Children aren’t like that; children are people just like you and me, and only our children know how much they need to eat each time.

So to back this up, the most important thing to start out with is to recognize that these parents are creating this issue, and they’re making it worse because they’re ruled by their son’s feelings, this hangry feeling that he has, which, a lot of it is, there is some hunger in there I’m sure, but there’s more anger than hunger at this point, and the anger needs to be expressed. The anger isn’t about that mealtime didn’t go his way, that’s not what it’s really about. That may be what it seems to be about, but it’s actually probably more about, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have leaders here. You guys are afraid of my feelings. This is really scary. Why are you treating me this way?” Those kinds of feelings that, again, aren’t conscious, but are what this anger is really about. So to back this up requires clarity, confidence, belief in your child and understanding that he may have one day where he’s pretty hungry and pretty angry too, pretty hangry, but if we’re clear and we’re comfortable and we’re honest, there will only be one day like this, if we’re consistent as well.

So set up beforehand the rules that you expect at mealtime. “We are going to be having dinner in a few minutes. We know that we’ve let you move around and we’ve tried these different things with you. We’re not going to do that anymore. That’s not healthy for you. We expect you to sit for however long you want to be eating. As soon as you’re done, please feel free to get up and go. If you need our help, we’ll help you. If you get up during mealtime, we’re going to know that you’re done eating.”

Be very clear ahead of time. This is for him, but it’s also for you to feel very comfortable in following through, for you to get to that place where you can really now let go and stick with your plan, especially let go of whatever feelings he has in response, because those are never healthy for us to try to control.

So then, let’s say that he comes and he sits and then he jumps up right away. Then you might say, “I see you.” First of all, I would be paying attention to him during mealtime. Children this age, they still need our full attention during meal time. Sometimes the family meal doesn’t work as well for this age as it does for a four-year-old or a five-year-old, so I would be paying attention regardless, even if you’re all there, I would be paying attention to him. I would see when he starts to get up, and I would remind him, “Oh, it looks like you’re trying to get up. Remember, we don’t want you to get up until you’re done. Are you saying you’re done?” Then right there, your child will clearly know that he’s either going to be telling you he’s done or he’s going to sit down and eat some more. Trust him. Believe him. Believe what he tells you. He may get up before he’s done again because it’s been so different other times and he needs to test this with you again.

So if he does, you’ve got to say, “Okay, I’m going to help you get down. Thanks for letting us know you’re done.”

There’s no reason to be mad at him. There’s no reason to be worried about him. This guy knows what he’s doing in terms of eating. All children do. It’s natural. They do have this communication between their mind and their tummy, but we get in the way with our agendas, so trust him, believe him.

When he’s hangry, acknowledge. “You’re saying you want to eat. Wow, you’re really hungry now.” You know, even though it’s two minutes after he left the table. You don’t have to say that part. “You are really, really hungry. Oh, you seem really upset. You don’t like that, that we’re not feeding you right now.”

Talk to him, talk to this power player that he is. He’s a power player. Talk to that guy. Don’t, “Oh, you’re so hungry,” don’t give him the poor baby thing or worry about him. “Maybe he didn’t know, maybe he didn’t understand.” Children understand the very first time. It’s the same with children that throw food down or play with their cup or pour water out. It’s not an oopsy. Maybe the very first time they did it, maybe it was an oopsy. But after that, they know. They totally know what they’re doing. So, you know, these fears tend to come into our mind and that, oh gosh, what if he really was hungry and he just forgot? Or what if she didn’t mean to throw the food off the table? Unless you’re throwing food off your plate, there’s no reason in the world a child would think that’s an okay thing to do. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad to do it, it means that they’re impulsive, they’re testing, they have their reasons that we won’t maybe know exactly in that moment, but they know that they’re doing it. So if you can be 100% comfortable with how you’ve laid it out, then he gets this gift of being able to express these other feelings, that, again, I don’t believe have anything to do with “You didn’t let me stand up while I was eating.” That’s baloney to use a food word, that’s baloney.

So the statement you made that it’s impossible to get any food in him – again, take this off your job description about food getting in him. Your business is to present the rules about eating and follow through, it’s not to get food in him. This is out of your control. Children need us to trust this unless we want to create food issues and a lack of focus. Feeding him basically through distraction, as this mother says she’s doing – “At the windowsill, following him around in the park, in his ‘yes’ space while he’s playing, etc.” – this is actively teaching your son not to focus on what he’s doing, not to pay attention to life, not to be a focused guy, not to be present with what’s happening to his body. These are dangerous lessons that will not help your son – won’t help him in school, won’t help him with eating, won’t help him with anything. These habits are, again, all the result of your fears, which I do understand, but I believe that you must 100% let go of because you are actually creating the issues here that you are concerned about: a child that has eating issues. He doesn’t. He has a need for boundaries like all children 27 months of age.

And so you say “perhaps we can be more consistent with limit setting, but when he gets hangry, it’s so difficult to get anything done.” You’re getting blinded by the feelings that are healthy and need to be expressed. Let the feelings be. Let him be hangry. You’ve done your best to present food to him, you’ve been very clear, you’ve been very honest about, “I know we used to do this and that and we’re not doing it anymore.” That is your job. Let him do his job. Trust him to do his job.

A big part of his job at this age is to express his feelings and young children are very, very good at this. We get in their way when we try to make things work for them so they won’t express these feelings that need to be expressed.

This issue around limit setting with him, around mealtimes that you’re having is going to, or if it hasn’t already, it’s going to bleed into all kinds of other behavior issues during the day, because when children are in the situation where they have, are wielding all this power in an area where it isn’t healthy for them and it’s very uncomfortable for them, they’re going to be constantly searching for a leader. It’s a huge distraction. It makes it harder to play, much harder to eat, harder to sleep, harder to do anything. It makes it hard to be a little kid when you don’t have a leader. Be the leader here that trusts him to know his body. That’s all you have to do. In a way, this should be easier. Take this out of your job description. Putting food in him, getting food in him, is not in your job description. Let him do this. You just do your job and let him do his.

Thanks so much for your question and I hope this was helpful, at least to somebody. And as you may know, you can read my books No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting, those books will give you the basics around mealtime and around limits, both of the things that we’re talking about today.

So thank you and don’t forget, we can do this!



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

  1. Hi, I’m facing a similar situation with my 8 month old who just won’t sit and eat. I want her to start understanding that she needs to sit at meal times. How do I go about doing that?
    We have a high chair but she won’t sit for long
    Tried sitting on the floor and feeding her but she don’t sit still for long either. Meals are eaten only thru distraction
    Please help!

    1. Is that any different from the situation presented above? She gave good advice up there. Can you just follow that?

      1. I think it’s dissimilar in that we aren’t sure how the advice applies to an 8 month old. I’m here with a 14 month old wondering if the advice applies. Like, probably? How long do I try this to find out?

  2. Thank you for this. My 4 yr old is a challenge at mealtimes at home – eating at a restaurant is much easier, because she loves to go out (we eat out a fair bit because I don’t like to cook, though she doesn’t know that). At home, she’s up, down, won’t eat what I’ve made… I find myself getting so frustrated and angry! The reminder that it’s her job to get the food in her body, not mine, is so timely. I will happily provide healthy meals; if she chooses not to eat them, that’s okay. She’ll live.

  3. Hi! so if the child comes bakc in a minute and wants food, and cries, and makes a big deal aout of it, we dont give it to him, because we have set down the rules…
    Mi 5 year old who is very head strong will try to open de fridge and get something out and it becomes a power struglle, how can I avoid this?

    1. A lock on the fridge? I mean it’s not easy keeping kids out of appliances but we usually manage pretty well on things like ovens and dishwashers. Boy howdy would my kid love playing in the dishwasher

  4. avatar Julie Sweethill says:

    I also have some bad habits of feeling responsible for getting enough food into my child. I am trying to take your advice and take that out of my job description. Once though, when I tried this and he basically didn’t eat dinner, the next morning he had low blood sugar and threw up. He’s 3 and isn’t napping so he’s asleep by 6:30 and sleeps 11-12 hours. It just seems to be too long for him to go without food unless he eats enough right before bed. To me that seemed like an extreme risk/consequence of stepping away from getting food into him at night. The rest of the day I’m better able to step back from it. Any suggestions? Thank you!

  5. avatar Lily Young says:

    I have a 4 year old daughter with Crohn’s disease, so food has always been a huge issue in our house. And fear. This article is very clear, and hit home for me. I have so much fear surrounding how much my daughter eats, and I completely let it rule our meal times, at least most of the time. As does her father. Therefore we have HUGE focus problems, and behavioral kickbacks that we would rather see go away. This will be a really hard challenge for me, but reading this does help me to understand about what has been going on for a long time. Thank you for spelling it out.

  6. avatar Jennifer Keeley Yonda says:

    Hi there,

    We have a similar problem. We don’t follow our son around any more – we used to, but we try to have strong, stable rhythms – the only thing is, he doesn’t seem to be in touch with his hunger at all. So when he gets hangry, he doesn’t know he’s hungry – he just becomes aggressive and super sensitive – he lashes out physically, and vocally at peers and us with so much sadness and pain that when he’s full and happy, he can otherwise handle the same situation (he’s 4.5 and in kindergarten at a Waldorf school). He doesn’t connect these sensitive / bad feelings with a feeling of hunger. If dinner is something he likes (salmon) – he’ll eat as much as I do, if it’s something he doesn’t care for, he politely tells us he’s done and we see the repercussions of it later. But it doesn’t change later behavior. He just doesn’t connect it. So how do we deal with that? We do eat really healthy (mostly veggies with some meat and fruit, gluten and dairy free due to allergies – but mayo and ketchup are always available to him as we don’t do anything else to cater to a stereotypical child diet). Should we be catering more to a child diet?

    Thank you so much! You have helped us so much!

  7. avatar Chubikorn says:

    Hi Janet, thanks for this. It helps to constantly be reminded that emotional blackmail (as much as I’m ashamed to call it that, but that’s what I do sometimes) and meeting their mealtime resistance with force and threats never has, and never will, work. Although it sometimes does provide short-term “desired results” ie. eating out of fear of a raised voice; the more lasting effects of distrust, fear of communication, and lack of legit respect are not worth it. In the case of both of my sons (aged 5 and 6) I find myself constantly hitting a wall because I can’t strike a balance. Their height/weight and resulting placement on the “healthiness” curve (don’t know what it’s called) at their pedia’s clinic has been steadily declining below the average range. We’re grasping for straws as to how else to get them to eat well in both quality and quantity, in a reasonable amount of time (not 2 hours) but none of our efforts have proved successful. We’ve tried setting time limits, adding appetite supplements, “talking” to them about the value of food and not wasting it, but no joy. We’ve taken the ultra respective parenting route and the punitive route as well , but still no upward trend in the curve. One thing I do know for sure is that force and threats are not an option. In this regard, do we just have to continue to be patient, trust that they’ll “get over it” and grow to be healthy boys, and accept that food (and money) will be wasted during that journey?

  8. avatar Tracey Starkovich says:

    The part I didn’t hear addressed here is the “refuses to come sit down at the table”. We are having the same challenge with our 3 year old. She’ll cry and scream about not wanting to sit down. I have been basically telling her she doesn’t have a choice, she has to come sit with us but she can decide how much she eats. Once she sits she does eat because she is hungry, but getting her to sit is the problem. Advice?

  9. This is such a mom judging, mom shaming response! I’m appalled! Saying things like the child’s anger is not because he’s hungry but because he has no leader, are you kidding me? You even said to this parent that their child is thinking, “why are you treating me this way?” How is that helpful to the parent who wrote in? She now not only has a frustrating situation with her child regarding mealtime, which is likely a phase, but she also now is likely doubting her ability as a mother. Come on, we can do better! Let’s support one another as mothers and stop the shelling out the “expert advice” and mom guilt.

  10. This seems in direct contrast to your book which says ‘Remember, your toddlers are growing rapidly, tire easily, and have low blood sugar attacks before they realize they’re hungry’. We are the adults. We know if our daughter doesn’t eat breakfast she will have low blood sugar when she goes to her gym class (which she usually loves) and will meltdown repeatedly throughout. We should lead our kids to do what’s best for them. Like encouraging them to eat even when they’d rather play so they have energy, feel good and can focus throughout the day.

  11. The mother is writing about a child whose two-year-old birthday party is still a recent memory. This is not a child who will necessarily be able to make rational choices about putting down exciting play opportunities to prevent misery later. This is an age that doesn’t understand “later”. Barely-two year olds will usually eat when they’re hungry **unless the alternatives are better**. Barely-two year olds will not voluntarily give up exciting, stimulating activities to sit quietly at a table even when they are a little hungry.

    My advice is similar to Tracey’s: Make eating be optional, but everyone has to stay at the table for at least five minutes, just because it’s polite to join everyone at the table. Talk for those five minutes about politeness and how glad you are to have the child at the table with you and don’t comment on whether anyone is eating, but being at the table is just as non-optional as other parts of the day, like going to bed even if we’d rather play, or leaving the house even if we’d rather stay home.

    Six “meals” a day can also be really helpful (breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, bedtime snack), so that a missed meal doesn’t screw up the entire day. If dinner is refused, then clear the table, take a break, and have the bedtime snack ready early enough that you can catch it before the hangries catch your toddler.

  12. I don’t think that Lansbury really understands “hanger”. It’s not just being angry and hungry at the same time. It’s a stress reaction that is triggered by hunger and resolved by getting some fuel in your body. Some of us get weepy when our blood sugar drops; some of us get irrationally angry. Taking too much insulin, or delaying a meal too long, can produce brain dysregulation that looks like real emotions, but it does not mean that we are experiencing actual sadness or anger about anything.

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