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Toddler Mealtime Wars

By Amalah

smackdown_bento.jpgO, wise Amalah! I’m sure you’ve covered this in bits and pieces (or in whole chunks) but my toddler is driving me up the wall at mealtimes. She’s 2 and her eating habits are pretty good overall. But she always wants the same foods (noodles! fruit! noodles! fruit!) and then refuses to eat most of it.

For example. Breakfast. I ask Abby if she would like some toast or cereal or waffles for breakfast (only 2-3 choices are given). She announces that she wants oatmeal. I sigh and make her oatmeal while swearing that if she doesn’t eat it this time, I’m gonna [fill in the blank with a useless threat] but oatmeal is good for her and it’s not like she asked to drink nuclear waste on the side so I fix the darn oatmeal. She eats 2 bites of oatmeal and then asks for whatever I’m having. Toast, waffles, cereal, you know the stuff I just offered her FIVE MINUTES AGO.

Same thing happens at lunch, where instead of always asking for what I have, she just eats 2 bites of her lovingly made grilled cheese or soup of the day and wants fruit. Dinner, same deal as lunch only maybe we get 1 bite into her and she NEVER wants what I have.

Is this just a contest of wills thing? A picky-er eater than I thought thing? A two-year-old thing that she’ll grow out of? And how do I make it STOP, for the LOVE of GOD?!? Because I’m getting tired of cooking/preparing a meal and throwing most of it out. Then having a whiny/hungry kid 15 minutes later.


How to Get Your Toddler to Eat

Okay. First. Go fire up Amazon and buy this book: How To Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much, by Ellyn Satter. Like, immediately. Seriously, don’t listen to me, because I can only weakly and clumsily relay information that I learned from that book. I’m like Cliffs Notes, only with more cursing.

Satter lays out the whole toddler-eating-antics thing out in a ton of detail: when to pick your battles, when to accommodate their capricious whims, and when to realize that YOU CANNOT FORCE THEM TO EAT. (Hint: NEVER. ALL THE TIME.) Division of responsibility, baby. You are responsible for purchasing and preparing age-appropriate food (not necessarily the same as “limited picky-eater food,” more like not expecting a two-year-old to crack open her own lobster tail). You are responsible for setting regular meal and snack times, for teaching appropriate table manners and behavior, and for putting the food in front of her. And that’s pretty much it.

You are not responsible for how much she eats. Or if she eats at all.

Yeah, it SUCKS when they don’t eat, because they get cranky and tantrummy and you want to turn your eyeballs inside out because OMG, who would ever think that chicken nuggets could completely ruin your life. But if you want this behavior to stop, you are going to have to stop caring so much, and let her learn to heed her own biological need to eat food when it is provided.

Make One Meal for Everyone

And unfortunately, you are committing two grievous mealtime crimes: Allowing her to choose her meals, and short-order cooking for her. The latter is probably the worst. She rejects something, you make her something else. She knows this, she knows she’s pushing your buttons, it’s all becoming a game and you are getting your butt kicked by a toddler. Do NOT make her something else if she rejects the first option. And serve her more or less the same thing you eat, which will remove the thing about her demanding food from your plate.

Satter believes that as parents, it’s OUR job to do the meal planning. All of it. I’m still guilty of this, a lot of days, particularly at lunch when the kids just naturally seem to come first before I think of myself and my own meals. Ezra gets what I eat, but I still get tempted to offer Noah a choice (and yeah, it’s always the same two or three choices) if I sense that he’ll flip out over what I’m eating. (Our situation is slightly complicated by his oral motor and hypersensitivity issues, but I admit I still cater to plain old regular picky-eater nonsense.) But really, you probably want to stop offering her any choice at all, at any meal. It’s telling her that she’s in control, so naturally she’s going to abuse that control with the constant mind-changing and demanding the same very limited, familiar menu.

So. Tomorrow morning, just go in the kitchen and make breakfast. Don’t ask. Make some toast, slice up some fruit and put it on two plates, scramble an egg. If she eats one bite of oatmeal and fruit and that’s it, fine. Offer a healthy mid-morning snack to keep life from getting completely miserable, watch out for overdoing the milk and juice. At lunch, just make lunch. I generally try to always have SOMETHING available that Noah will eat, even if it’s just some bread or using one of those single-serving things of mac & cheese as a side dish. Same thing at dinner. No special meals just for her (within reason); NO SHORT ORDER COOKING if she says she doesn’t want something. Don’t argue with her, don’t let her know how (deeply, passionately) you care. When Noah rejects a meal outright, I tell him that’s fine, but he needs to stay at the table and keep me company until I’m done eating. Generally, about five or 10 minutes later, he will start poking at the food again.

I’m not saying that the Satter approach is 100% guaranteed to get your kid eating all sorts of new foods overnight, but oh, it will save your sanity and give you permission to STOP CARING SO MUCH. Pretty much everything that your daughter is doing that’s driving you nuts is stuff that you are allowing her to do. And it’s stuff that you don’t have to allow her to do. Plan her meals for her, no choices, lots of variety, no replacements for rejected food. Bring your meals more in sync so your plate is more or less the same as hers and therefore not some kind of awesome other option that she can demand instead.

It’s Time for a Change

I was just thinking the other day about how I always ate family meals despite being an insanely picky eater — I never, EVER remember an instance where I got a grilled cheese while the family ate chicken, you know? But…I was doing exactly that with Noah, since I was still looking at him as a “baby” and had totally gotten suckered in by the Gerber Graduates, which morphed into tons of other packaged convenience food marketed directly for kids. We had two shopping lists: Ours and his. And this…just never changed, even as Noah got older and older. When did I think I could suddenly stop with the grilled cheeses and frozen pizzas? Did I honestly expect to ask him one day what he wanted for dinner and for him to say “Oh, whatever you’re having will be fine. Pork chops? Sure!” I was still treating him like a baby and he was acting (and eating) like one. Trust me, by catering to your two-and-a-half-year-old, you’ll be in this exact same position next year, and the year after that.

(Seriously, buy the book! So much more information than I could ever provide. Will change your life, I swear.)

(But also buy some Excedrin. You’ll need it, after all the head-slapping you’ll do while reading about how everything you’ve been doing is so completely the wrong thing to do and it’s now all so obvious gaaaaaaaah.)

Photo source: Flickr/luckysundae

Published September 4, 2009. Last updated March 12, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Bitts

    September 4, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    ITA — Ellyn Satter is the only thing you need to know about feeding children. Her other book is called “Child of Mine” and is equally as enlightening, empowering and encouraging.
    My (very wise) mother says: “You can give them food, but you can’t make them eat. You can put them to bed, but you can’t make them sleep. You can sit them on the pot, but you can’t make them go.” Truer words …

  • Missy

    September 4, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    THANK YOU!! I’m going to take a deep, cleansing breath, put on my big girl panties, and buy the book. I know I’ve totally given up comtrol (duh!) so now I’m going to get it back. Thank you so much!

  • Kai

    September 4, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I totally agree with Amy (and Satter, apparently). It can be tough, but ultimately it works out very well. We have a modification — my daughter is allowed a single food that she can substitute if she doesn’t like anything at a meal. Here’s how our dinners go:
    1. You must eat at least one bite of everything.
    2. If you eat a bite of something and don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.
    3. If you’re not full from the other things on your plate, you may have applesauce.
    Applesauce is her magical food. Unsweetened, plain ol’ applesauce (although we started putting Omega Swirl on top because it’s PRETTY! It’s PINK! It makes SHAPES AND SWIRLS! Oh yeah, and it has protein and Omega 3s and 6s, but shhhhh). She is permitted to substitute applesauce — ONLY APPLESAUCE — if she isn’t full.
    I also have to say that I became a vegetarian when I was 12. My mom used this approach on me. I was not allowed to make myself any special food for dinner beyond what the family was eating. It has made for a lifelong low-maintenance vegetarian dining companion in me — I can eat at a steakhouse and find a way to be completely full without complaint.

  • Denise

    September 4, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Oh boy. I love when we talk about kids eating habbits. Although I agree with most of what Amy is saying here, we all know that every child is different. My 4-yr old daughter has much of the same issues as yours (my 6-yr old son has much more complicated issues). They have been to an Occupational Therapist for an evaluation and a year of feeding therapy — not that this is your case, but there can be more to it than just making them eat what you are eating. If mom planning the menu works, I agree it’s the best thing to try first. I hope it does work for you and makes everyone happier. I’ve tried for several years and have not yet found success with that particular method. For my daugther I often fix something for myself knowing that I plan to give her part of it. Eating food from my plate is “safe” in her mind. She will not eat food that is not “safe” even if it is food she likes. At times, I put her meal and my meal on my plate, then when she shows interest (or is asked to try some) I put her portion onto her plate — giving her the “safe” food. It doesn’t work every day, but it helps from time to time.
    On another note, at this age it is important that we offer our children a variety of foods — expose them to sight, smell, taste, texture. However if they are not eating all that variety yet, the exposure to it is still helping them, at least that’s what the OT tells me. (yep, it’s pretty darn frustrating to throw out so much food, but I’m holding on to the idea that it will be worth it in the long run.)
    In our particular case the kids eating anything different than noodles is more important than nutritional value — so if my son will eat a green skittles candy then he put something green in his mouth and hurahh for him that he can eat green. Then green food coloring in his vanilla yogurt (ok some nutrition there). Maybe one day when he has a green vegetable on his plate, he will be able to tolerate looking at it and not vomit at the mere sight of something green.

  • bethany actually

    September 4, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I was an extremely picky eater as a kid. My mom never short-order cooked for me, but she (like Amy) made sure there was at least one thing on the table I’d eat, and then let me eat what I wanted without pushing.
    I’ve handled eating pretty much the same way with my 5-yo daughter (though admittedly, she’s less picky than I was) and she loves veggies and often chooses fruit over sweets. Sometimes she eats three bites and is done, sometimes she devours two plates full. I don’t stress about it, and I model good eating habits for her.
    To give hope to parents of picky kids, I’ll add that as I got older (around 8 or 9), if I didn’t want to eat what everyone else was eating, I was allowed to prepare myself a bowl of cereal or a pb&j. When I got older still (12-13) and I complained about something my mom was planning for dinner, she’d say in a neutral way, “You’re welcome to cook the meal tonight, if you want.” So sometimes I did! And you know what, when I started cooking for myself I ate SO MANY things I would have never eaten before.

  • Christine

    September 4, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Urgh. I so needed to read this right now. I’m guilty of all this stuff. I try not to short-order cook, but things my 3-year-old son will eat (that are not cookies or ice cream) are basically down to toast or cereal at this point. This is compounded by the fact that he’s still (still) nursing (shoot me now), so when he’s hungry and whiny he fills up at the mommy bar. I vow not to make the same mistakes with his sister, who so far is a much better eater than he ever was, and not quite so attached to the boob.

  • Kat

    September 4, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I totally agree with Amy on this one. Want to know what is really annoying…when your kid gets older and starts going on real playdates and will not eat what the other family is serving or expects the other family to make them a special meal. I have a nephew the same age as my child (10)and because my nephew will not eat anything but quesidillas, grilled cheese or mac and cheese he doesn’t get invited on weekend trips or dinners out with us. I just can’t handle it, nor will I choose restaurants based on what he will eat or say “well he just won’t eat”. They really don’t grow out of it.

  • Liz

    September 4, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    I’ve read the Satter books and I agree- she really takes the pressure off. This approach works most of the time, even with my 12-month old. Only once or twice so far has he turned his nose up at what we’re eating, and then cried to be let out of his high chair. We put him on the floor, and went back to eating our dinner like nothing happened. After a few minutes, he started making the sign for “eat,” we strapped him back into the chair, and he ate everything in front of him.

  • LJP

    September 4, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    I could have written this question myself. Great advice as always from Amy, I’m going to pick up that book. Here is what has has been working for us as well (at least some of the time!)
    My toddler is the worst at dinner, picking away, taking one bite and claiming to be “all done!”. We started something recently called “Second Chance Supper”. If he’s left a lot on his plate, after dinner we pop it in the fridge, and a little bit before we start bath/bed routine we offer it back to him. He’s often a little more interested in it then, and might take a few more bites while we have a cup of tea with him or something. Seems to help with him getting hungry in the morning (and waking up at 5am GOD HELP ME). Offering him the same meal again I hope shows him that we won’t short order cook for him, and dinner won’t change if he refuses it. I can see how maybe in a busier household there might not be time for it, but he really only takes a few minutes to have a few more bites. Also, if he refuses Second Chance Supper, no problem, all done ’til tomorrow.
    I’m trying (tryyying) my best to act totally casual and not care what he eats. It also means not getting excited when he eats a lot of something. Tonight my husband and I whispered to each other in hushed tones through a clenched jaw … “don’t look now… he’s eating COLESLAW!” Perhaps the most exciting thing that’s happened to me all week.

  • tadpoledrain

    September 5, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    @Kat (I’m a Kat too!): It’s not necessarily true that they /never/ grow out of it, it just might take some time. Which, annoying, yes, but don’t worry that if you have/create a picky kid, you’re dooming them for life nutritionally. My parents never short-order cooked for me, but I was pretty picky (except I was the only 4yo I ever met who LOVED lobsters and steamers and mussels). I ate a LOT of Cheerios in college. Cheerios, tuna, and pizza. I never really ate vegetables, cooked peas made me gag, the concept of sushi seemed insane to me. And then, when I was about 20, I just sort of… started eating stuff. Vegetables — broccoli, peas, asparagus, brussels sprouts even! (Tried butternut squash and cooked carrots. Still yuck.) Tofu. Sushi. Unfamiliar unknown whatever. Now, other than being a vegaquarian, I’m pretty unpicky. I’ll eat stuff I don’t love if it’s served to me at someone’s house, or if I need something healthy or convenient. I’ll try pretty much anything. So, to parents of picky picky eaters — there is hope!
    (Also, note to parents of kids with milder tactile issues — I had/have (self- and mom-diagnosed only) tactile/sensory issues, not bad enough to super interfere with my life, but bad enough that realizing it now makes sense of some of the weirder ways I behaved as a kid (like being picky), like that I had to train my whole family to eat spaghetti without their forks really touching their plates, because OHMYGOD THE NOISE, and I’m trying to think of something else that I can use as an example that won’t gross me out too much to even type, like, I really want a dog, but I’m not sure I can handle the petting and the licking and the hair and the dog, like, breathing on me, or, OK, when people use the phrase “toe jam” it seriously, really bothers me, to the extent that I didn’t want to type it. Ugh. I have to have my own sponge that only I use, I can only wipe down a kitchen counter if I use paper towel (not a sponge, no no no no) on both hands, and I would rather change diapers at a daycare for a week than empty one of those traps in the sink drain that collects all the bits of food that you don’t want to go down the train when you don’t have a garbage disposal. (Oddly enough, poopy diapers? No problem.) (I know, these are all gross examples. I’m trying to think of a non-gross example that’s still something that grosses me out. I don’t like my mom to hug me. I love my mom. I just don’t want to her to hug me. Forget about kissing me. Not gonna happen. Mostly this is just my mom, not as much other people. I don’t know why. Sorry Mom! Oh, and my grandmother will walk up behind me and scratch/rub my back, and it takes every fiber of my being not to run away twitching.) So, anyway, I was a weird kid, and I’m still kind of a weird adult, and I have Issues, but I at least managed to train myself out of the picky eating/tactile/sensory stuff with food. YMMV, clearly.)
    Huh. Long comment. Sorry.

  • Jasmine

    September 6, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Growing up in an extremely strict Asian household taught me that my mother was not going to worry about how much I ate or when: it was my responsibility and I would get hungry if I did not eat what was cooked.
    It may seem a little harsh here, but if I didn’t eat anything my parents would have made me. In my nursery school, once, for being a picky eater, the teacher sloshed the whole bowl of cold food down the front of my dress! It was a routine punishment for picky children and enough to teach us never to resist the system. Maybe this is why Asians eat anything 🙂

  • Bethany

    September 8, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I had cousins who were picky eaters and it confused the heck out of me. My parents always had us eat what they were eating (as far as I can remember) though special requests were taken into consideration (our Christmas Eve tradition of burritos is due to a request made when I was three and followed up at age 4 with “but it’s tradition!”). As we got older we were allowed to suggest meals when the family went food shopping but the menu choice was still always our parents’ choice.

  • Rachel

    September 8, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Ask your child what they want for dinner only if they’re buying. I love Ellyn Satter.

  • epoh

    September 8, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    I’ve not read the book mentioned, but it sounds pretty much how I was raised and how I’m raising my children. I prepare 1 meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Eat it, don’t it, whatever. But do not complain, do not ask for snacks after and do not ask for dessert if you have not eaten a reasonable amount of your dinner.
    Of course, I was lucky neither of my kids have any sort of sensitivity or allergy issues, but I think the fact that my son actually requested BROCCOLI for his snack yesterday speaks to my approach. (Yes, he loves broccoli, and edameme and cauliflower and spinach and so on and so forth.)

  • epoh

    September 8, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    I just wanted to add, I am, however, a big fan of choices. But only choices I have defined – ie ‘Do you want spinach or carrots with dinner?’ before I start cooking. Allowing the kids to help prepare dinner and cook it when they are old enough is, I think, a very important part of the mealtime process.

  • lindsey

    September 8, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    As a picky youngster (and only semi-picky adult) , I thought I’d chime in. I too outgrew (for the most part) the pickiness. I still have aversions to a few foods and there are a few vegetables and meats that I will not eat- but it’s because I don’t care for them, so why force myself… I’ve tried them and will continue to try them, I just won’t order them to torture myself.
    Anyway. My husband’s family did much as it sounds like Satter does- but they had a few caveats that I hope to embrace. “No Thank you helpings” are just that. If you don’t like something on your plate, you have to try at least a bite. If you don’t like it after that, no big deal- don’t eat it.
    The second is a choice of 3 foods that you do not have to eat. You have the opportunity to change this every year on your birthday but you get 3 meals/dishes that you don’t even have to take a bite of (and something else- like cereal or another reasonable, simple request will be honored). My husband chose manicotti one year (maybe more) and his mom only made it about 1x per year- so that was easy.
    Oh the joys and pains of picky eating… I can hardly wait.

  • S Bear Bergman

    September 14, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    We had what my mother referred to as “the no-thank-you helping,” which was about two small bites. You ate what was served to you, but you could request a no-thank-you helping of any food you did not enjoy and get only a tiny bit instead of a normal serving.
    We also had birthday request dinner, where when it was your birthday you could choose from all available dinner foods and request your favorites.
    My recollection is dinner was always set menu and all of us together. Breakfasts were what-Mom-handed-you until we were old enough to make our own if we wanted something else. I recall that lunch was a little more free-form: I would be asked what I wanted for lunch, and my Mom would usually make it (plus accompaniments as she deemed appropriate). I was really never a picky eater, though, so my lunch requests tended to revolve around what sort of soup and which type of sandwich.
    I’m hoping we get a good eater. We’re strategizing to make it so.

  • Emily

    September 15, 2009 at 6:05 am

    It does get scary when they refuse to eat, but I’ve found Satter’s advice really helpful in the past, so you should definitely give it a try.