dad and baby talking and eating

Remember when sitting down to eat used to be a relaxed experience where everyone could chill out? Not so much when you have a toddler. Here’s how to deal with mid-dinner meltdown…

There’s only one thing harder than dealing with a toddler having a tantrum: that’s dealing with a toddler having a tantrum over food. You’re desperate for them to have a lovely, varied diet of home-cooked food. But they’re currently throwing some noodles at your face.

Here are some tips from parents – and a few from us – that could help calm things down.

Steal their food (or pretend to…)

If toddlers are one thing, they’re possesive. Their until-now rejected pasta might suddenly become the most important thing in the world to them if you start to eat it.

‘I pretend to my son that I’m eating his food. And because he’s so territorial he says: “It’s mine” and then eats the lot,’ says mum Julia.

Mix it up with picnics, guests or eating out

Some parents find that having a picnic outside, inviting their child’s pal over for lunch or trying the child-friendly noodle restaurant in town can help with a food rut. Anything that might snap your child out of a negative mealtime habit is worth a go. Plus, you get to eat those amazing prawn noodles you’re craving while you’re there.

Cut out snacks

Cutting down on snacks between mealtimes and offering only planned snacks or water is an important food rule to apply to toddlers (Bernard-Bonnin, 2006).

‘I don’t give snacks between meals to my daughter anymore and it’s made a huge difference. It’s hard not to hand out snacks but if she’s actually hungry at mealtimes, she’ll sit and eat. If she’s not, she’ll have a tantrum,’ says mum Sam.

Relax about food

Creating a calm environment during mealtimes where children aren’t forced to eat is also important. Some experts say that children should be able to choose what they’d like to eat or not, and we should respect their ability to self-regulate their food intake (Bernard-Bonnin, 2006; Bolten, 2013).

‘Try not to get too frustrated. If you’re putting your child into a seat they don’t want to sit in or forcing them to eat food they don’t want to eat, they aren’t going to magically calm down – they’ll probably get worse. Let them wander around the kitchen until they’re bored and find their own way to their dinner,’ says dad Carl.

Maybe after a big breakfast or a recent snack, they’re just not very hungry at the moment. If you try and override their natural feeling of having had enough to eat, you might disrupt their ability to tell when they are full in the future, potentially leading to overeating (Birch, 1987).

Think about the week, not the day

It might be helpful to use the old ‘week not day’ rule when it comes to thinking about what your toddler has eaten. So even if they’ve barely touched anything on their plate today, they’ve probably had other days when they’ve wolfed their food down happily (Birch, 1987; KidsHealth, 2014).

Mum of two, Katie, says: ‘I used to worry because my daughter would often refuse food or just pick at meals.Then I noticed that when she felt like it, she’d eat like a horse, but might be full for the rest of the day. I learned to trust she could tell whether she needed to eat, and she wasn’t going to starve. We’ve both been much more relaxed around food since.’

Most toddlers eat enough over a week to keep their little tummies full. Try not to get too stressed about whether they are sitting down and eating every last scrap of food. All you can do is provide regular opportunities to eat nutritious meals with a healthy snack and drinks in-between.

Remember vitamins and fortified foods are also a good supplement to a healthy diet.

Give attention for good mealtimes, not just bad

Some experts suggest ignoring negative mealtime antics, like tantrums or throwing food, and instead praising positive behaviour (Bernard-Bonnin, 2006; Bolten, 2013). If you only react when your toddler chucks their spaghetti at the wall and refuses mashed potato, then they’ll decide that this behaviour gets attention. Many parents find that praising children when they tuck in helps show that good eating gets attention too (Parenting your Kid, 2018).

Being present for your toddler and giving them attention can have a positive effect on both their general, as well as eating, behaviour. It also makes it easier to recognise cues that they’re full. This will help you get a better idea of the difference between when your child has had enough to eat and when they are refusing food for another reason (Williams, 2014).

Modelling good eating behaviours

Modelling behaviour is important for tackling fussy eating in toddlers (Williams, 2014). ‘I find that sitting to eat the same meal as my daughter makes the world of difference to what she eats. She’ll not only eat hers but often pinches my food too,’ says mum Jo.

Make mealtimes a family affair as much as possible, and you both might enjoy having the time to sit together. If you’re preparing one family meal instead of separate child and grown up ones, it should cut down the time you’re preparing and clearing up food, too – bonus.

Include toddlers in dinner conversations

Many parents find it can help to involve your kids while shopping, preparing, and serving meals. Getting your toddler to play a part in making their food can have a positive effect on what they eat and their emotions (Ver der Horst, 2014). This could include everything from gardening with their own small veg patch or indoor herb pot, to writing shopping lists, buying food together and cooking and serving meals (DeCosta et al, 2017).

It is also very important to get them involved while you are having dinner together. For example, you could ask them questions about what they did during the day.

‘You have to be careful not to inadvertantly ignore your child, say if you and your partner are having a conversation across them. If you do, they’ll play up more for attention. You could chat to them about their favourite TV programme or really whatever you need to do to engage them and make them feel part of mealtimes,’ advises dad Chris

Put one guaranteed food winner on a toddler’s plate

Cut your children a little slack and give them one hero element to the meal. That way they don’t take one look at an unrecognisable plate of food and give up before they’ve even started.

’Always put one thing you know they’re guaranteed to like on their plate. That way, they’ll at least start eating and often when they’ve started they’ll keep going with the rest,’ says mum Liz.

Make sure they get exercise during the day

If they’ve been really active, they’ll be hungrier and more likely to sit down for a proper meal. Try a swimming class or just a run around the soft play area. They’ll have used up so much energy, they’ll be gobbling up that pasta without having time for a tantrum (hopefully) (Gubbels et al, 2013).

Remember drinks too

It is all too easy to forget drinks when faced with a picky eater. For children under one year, breastmilk and formula milk is an essential and main source of nutrition. The World Health Organization (2018) recommends breastfeeding your child until they’re two years old and older. If you are formula feeding after your child is one year old, you can offer full-fat cow’s milk instead.

Regularly offer water to your toddler to ensure they remain hydrated, which is extremely important for their health (Gibson-Moore, 2013). If your child likes to drink fruit juice, you could try offering fruit-infused water instead. This can be a fun experiment for your toddler and whole fruits are less likely to cause tooth decay (NHS, 2018).

Try, try, try, try, try and try again

Yes, as unpopular as it might be, the secret to getting your child to eat a certain item of food is to offer it again and again.

Research suggests that this go-to advice is actually quite effective. Repeated taste exposure is one of the most simple, although of course often frustrating, techniques you can try. Trying a certain food at least eight to ten times can be the key to earning a regular spot on your toddlers yes list (Nekitsing et al, 2018).

This too shall pass

So, you’ve tried offering broccoli ten times and it still gets thrown on the floor. You’ve spent hours whipping up a culinary masterpiece, which is refused. Then…your partner’s cheese on toast is devoured in a flash. Remember, this phase will pass.

Children can grow up and learn to enjoy something they didn’t like, and fussy eaters can become good eaters. Food is such a big part of our lives, try to make the experience of eating together enjoyable and stress-free. One day they might just be eating you out of house and home.

This page was last reviewed in December 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Our Introducing solid foods workshops will help get your weaning journey off to a good start, as well as learning important tips such as recognising allergies and ensuring your child has a balanced diet. 

Bernard-Bonnin AC. (2006) Feeding problems of infants and toddlers. Can Fam Physician. 52(10):1247-1251. [Accessed:1st December 2018]

Bolten MI. (2013) Infant psychiatric disorders. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 22(Suppl 1):S69-S74. [Accessed 1st December 2018]

Birch LL. (1987) The role of experience in children’s food acceptance patterns. J Am Diet Assoc. 87(Suppl 9): S36-S40. [Accessed 1st December 2018]

DeCosta P, Møller P,  BomFrøst M, Olsen A. (2017) Changing children's eating behaviour - a review of experimental research. Appetite 113:327-357.  Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666317303549  [Accessed 1st December 2018]

KidsHealth. (2014) Toddlers at the table: avoiding power struggles. Available from: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/toddler-meals.html [Accessed 1st December 2018]

Gibson‐Moore H. (2013) Improving hydration in children:

a sensible guide. British Nutrition Foundation Nutrition Bulletin. 38:236–242. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/nbu.12028 [Accessed December 2018]

Gubbels JS, van Assema P, Kremers SPJ. (2013) Physical activity, sedentary behavior, and dietary patterns among children. Curr Nutr Rep. 2(2):105-112. [Accessed 1st December 2018]

Nekitsing C, Blundell-Birtill P, Cockroft JE, Hetherington MM. (2018) Systematic review and meta-analysis of strategies to increase vegetable consumption in preschool children aged 2– 5 years. Appetite. 127:138-154. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666317313235  [Accessed 1st December 2018]

NHS. (2018) Water and drinks. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/water-drinks-nutrition/ [Accessed 1st December 2018]

Parenting your Kid. (2018) How to effectively deal with toddler mealtime tantrums. Available from:

http://www.parentingyourkid.com/how-to-effectively-deal-with-toddler-mealtime-tantrums [Accessed 1st December 2018]

Van der Horst K, Ferrage A, Rytz A. (2014) Involving children in meal preparation. Effects on food intake. Appetite. (7):18-24. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666314001573 [Accessed 1st December 2018]

WHO. (2018) Infant and young child feeding. World Health Organization fact sheet. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/infant-and-young-child-feeding [Accessed 1st December 2018]

Williams C. (2014) Fussy eating in toddlers - thinking beyond the plate. International Journal of Birth and Parent Education. 1(4):31-36. [Accessed 1st December 2018]

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