Parenting Q & A

Ellen Barrett, a parent educator at Family Connections (formerly known as Heights Parent Center) for the last 12 years, fields questions from parents about the daily ups and downs of parenting. The same issues impact many parents. E-mail questions for Ellen to

Q. My wife and I used to look forward to meal time, but now find that we dread it. We have such a hard time getting our two-year-old to eat what we’ve made, and he never wants to sit still long enough for us to enjoy our meal. We’ve come to expect a battle each time. It makes us tense and cranky and is very unpleasant. What can we do to get him to eat and enjoy dinner so we can enjoy our family?

A.  Parents often find that one of the hardest parts of the early years of parenting involves food. What are the best foods to feed my child? When is my child full? How can I be sure my child is getting the calories and nutrition he needs? Combine those uncertainties with the temperament of a two-year-old and there is no telling how meal time might play out. The first thing to remember is two-year-olds don’t see meal time the same way we do. They are just as likely to wish they were playing with their trucks or running around. So for right now you might have to change your expectations. That being said, dinnertime can evolve into a pleasant, quality family experience if you remember a few things.

  • It is your responsibility as the parent to provide the food and it’s your child’s responsibility to eat it. You are the one making the grocery list, planning the meals and preparing the food, but you cannot chew or swallow the food for your child. Choose tasty, nutritious foods that are reasonable choices for a toddler. Don’t be afraid to offer flavorful food. And try to steer away from offering a default food if he rejects what is on the menu. Calmly put away the portion of food he has not eaten and, if he says he is hungry later, bring out that food again.
  • Don’t force food on your child. The “clean plate club” mentality from our own childhood is counterproductive to the goal of developing a child’s ability to know when he is full. 
  • Let your child explore the food. Involve him in some of the preparation when possible. Kids can measure and stir and help set the table. When he is eating he may want to touch or mash his food and it may go in and out of his mouth a few times. Try to accept this behavior and understand that it is one more way that your toddler is exploring his world.  
  • Set your child up for success. Set regular meal times and (healthy) snack times and resist the urge to let your child graze throughout the day. Even limit the amount of liquid you allow him to drink in between meals--juices and milk can trick his body into thinking he has eaten. You want him to be hungry, but not starving, at dinner time.
  • Model healthy eating habits. Choose healthy foods for yourself and resist the temptation to eat on the run or while standing at the kitchen counter. Your child will see these behaviors and follow your example.
  • Be patient. Toddlers are very tuned into the mood around them. If you become exasperated, he may focus on that instead of the meal.  

Most important, make mealtime pleasant. Share your day, include him in the conversation and enjoy one another's company.

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Volume 4, Issue 1, Posted 2:29 PM, 12.15.2010