Strategies for Mealtime Battles With Toddlers

by | Aug 17, 2015 | Mailbag, Parenting | 16 comments

Mailbag time! Toddlers. They keep us on our toes. One question I get asked quite often, is how we handle toddlers that just. won’t. eat. Not to worry, we’ve got a method for that madness.

– question –

Hi Kendra,

I love your blog! The babies, the Catholic, the parties. My favourite though are your posts about parenting. I want to be a mom like you when I “grow up”.

Which is why I’m writing. I have a 21 month old daughter. She was a really good eater. She still is at breakfast. But the past 3 nights now have just been battles at the dinner table. She’ll have two bites and then cry about things, or ask for something like milk or water or the feta from my salad. I would give them to her if she was eating better! So I’ve been telling her “take one bite and you can have —“. But she refuses! I don’t give in because I try to mean what I say, but she’s been going to bed with a pretty empty belly I think.

What do you do when your toddlers refuse to eat?


– answer –


I’m so sorry. I know firsthand how frustrating that can be. I’d say though, that in my experience, how much food a toddler needs can vary wildly from day to day or week to week. As long as my kids are otherwise healthy, I really don’t stress these days about how much they eat on a particular day. Sometimes they’ll be about to have a growth spurt and seem to be hungry all the time, and other days, they seem to eat hardly anything all day. But somehow, they’re fine.

As long as your mama gut isn’t telling you that there’s more going on here, like illness or allergies, I really think it’s probably something that will resolve itself over time.

If you’re more concerned with it as a behavior issue than an amount of food issue, we can look at it a different way. Since the battle seems to be with dinner in particular, I think you could just figure she’s just not so much of a late in the day eater, and focus on getting quality foods into her earlier in the day. My oldest was a really unpredictable eater, but he could almost always be counted upon to eat an egg at breakfast. That always made me feel better. I figured he could totally live on an egg a day, even if it seemed like he didn’t want to eat much at the rest of his meals.

The other thing to try would be limiting or getting rid of snacking in the afternoon. I find that it makes a huge difference with some of my kids. Anita for instance, who is six: if she has a snack, she pretty much never wants to eat dinner. She’s old enough to understand that it’s better for her to just not have snacks so she can enjoy her dinner with the family. I’m not sure if an almost two year old would be as understanding, but if eating dinner is important to you, you can give it a try.

But really, as much as possible, I’d encourage you to not make a big deal about mealtimes. I think eating food is best understood by all of us, kids included, to be a blessing and a privilege, not something we battle over or endure or are cajoled or threatened into doing. We try to keep our kids hungry enough that they want to eat, and offer them healthy foods that they mostly like. But we also don’t sweat it if they want to choose not to eat at a particular meal, even the toddlers. As long as they don’t have other health concerns, if they are hungry enough, they will eat. And if they’re not hungry enough, then going to bed without much of a dinner won’t hurt a bit.

Here’s an earlier post all about how we arrived at this system, and how it has worked in our family:


Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

you’ve got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail .
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  1. Molly Walter

    I've got a kid who is not a late day eater too – so I try to use afternoon snacks to my advantage. I'm open to them, but it's a strict list of what he can have. It's either veggies and dip or fruit. Since I figured out that the afternoon snack will most likely make him more picky about diner (and no snack means cranky kid who still hates eating dinner) I can at least manage to get some veggies in him as a compromise.

    Also try to look at the day as a whole picture rather than trying to make each meal nutritionally complete on it's own. =)

  2. Sarah

    I have one who is actually a voracious eater (like regularly eats more dinner than more and he is five) but is not a breakfast lover. He is actually just like his dad and that has helped. I know he just can't eat much at breakfast and so our deal is he has to eat something (fruit, a little cereal, a piece of toast) and then we go from there.

  3. Anonymous

    I am JUST coming to these realizations with my 6 year old, and let me tell you, it has been a painful 6 years. Don't go down that path if you can help it. Really- we enabled him to be a picky eater. He is full of "I need a snack" 5 min before dinner is done, and "I am not hungry for that, I am hungry for this" or,
    "I don't want to fill up on dinner because I will have a tummy ache and have no room for dessert."

    First, I had to realize that I really was giving him too much food at expecting him to eat it all, so I have adjusted my expectations. I have adopted a no afternoon snack policy and have been telling him "hunger is the best sauce", but I need to read him more Dickens for him to really appreciate it. But, I have to say, the thing that has helped the most at dinner time, aside from patience from me, is perspective. We saw an ad on TV the other day for Save the Children with a baby who was just skin and bones and the voice-over was saying how this baby will have nothing to eat today or tomorrow etc… And he looked over at his plump little brother and sister (6 month old twins, probably the same age as the baby on TV) and he was reduced to tears.I always tell him there are kids who go without and he doesn't know how lucky he is, but he needed to SEE it.

  4. K

    We always gave our 4 kids lots of Greek yogurt when they were ages 1-3…made me happy they were getting protein…..they all eat what they are given (we are a must clean your plate always family and eat whatever I make)…portions aren't more than they can handle…..if they say I don't like xyz…I say maybe your taste buds have changed since the last time…try it …which isn't optional…often they say yah…it's better….one of my big faults is that I feed our kids until they are at least 3 or 4…many things they eat on their own…but homemade chicken soup…seems like a lot of work to my 3 year old….she doesn't have the patience for it…my husband thinks this is a big mistake I've made and I agree…but they (oldest 3) all grew out of it by age 5 and I was happy they were getting 3 good meals in them each day….we do at least 3 snacks too….including one right before bedtime/teeth brushing….and our kids have always slept well through the night….a little protein like a cheese stick or a few peanut butter crackers seems to go a long way for our guys…..we've just never had kids wake up at night like I know some families have…also, if there's any big complaints about food (although they know it's not acceptable to complain so it's pretty rare)….I say well at least it's not an elephant turd…I know that's disgusting but we watched that adventure guy Bear on TV once squeeze liquid from an elephant dropping into his mouth for a survival show! Oh and my husband usually leads the kids in clapping for me each night when I bring dinner over…I don't want that praise but it is nice…and we've raised them to tell me thank you right away for whatever food I give them….the 5 year old sometimes fusses but I say…our last name are grateful for whatever we Receive…..that or the elephant turd comment….I've relaxed a lot through the years but with zero milk supply and failure to thrive with my first…it was so scary to me and I just wanted them to grow and be ok…we all enjoy mealtime now and I'm getting them to help more…my 8 year old/oldest can make a good lasagna and my 7 year old made a great pie yesterday….I grew up with my dad always criticizing my moms cooking in front of us…it's nice to have a more pleasant experience these days!

  5. Christy

    We don't have any rules about dinner eating until our kids are 2 or 3 (depending on their maturity level). Then, each kid has to "try" N bites of dinner where N is her age. If they refuse, they have to go to bed/to their room for the rest of the night. Which sounds really harsh now that I've written it down, but it's worked great for us. Only 1 kid has actually gone to bed early, and she got up 30 minutes later and decided to take 2 bites.

    I know there are LOTS of opinions out there about food (especially having any sort of punishment or reward system based on food), but I wanted to get my kids used to trying new foods. And, as an added bonus, by the time my 7-year-old takes 7 bites, her dinner is almost gone! 🙂

  6. Bailey

    My kids are generally very good, non-picky eaters but they have all gone through phases of not eating much. My two year old is actually in a less hungry phase now and the other night she didn't even eat the cookie I gave her after dinner. I've never seen one of my kids turn down a cookie before!

    I definitely second cutting back on snacks too. My kids eat a small afternoon snack everyday but are not allowed to snack otherwise. I also found that when my kids started drinking water with their meals, they were hungrier. A glass of whole milk can be very filling at meal time.

    I read the book Brining Up Bebe a couple of weeks ago and realized that apparently I feed my kids like a French parent. The book definitely has some good tips to turn your kids into non-picky eaters.

  7. mel

    Four of my five have been poor dinner eaters…my mother in law would say, "little kids seem to have one good meal a day in em", 🙂 It seems pretty true for us.

  8. Lauren

    I'll add what no one's said here yet — I think it's fine to make any decision you want about the presence of milk/juice at dinner and when it's offered, but if a kid asks for water, it makes sense to let her have some (especially if she's turning down food and won't be getting hydrated via fruit/vegetables).

  9. Layla

    My favorite thing our pediatrician ever said to me, when I was freaking out over my first almost-two-year-old suddenly refusing to eat, is, "no child ever starved to death with healthy food on the table in front of him." It helped me stay so much more sane about food battles. We definitely subscribe (now that we know about it), the Satter method/mindset: we're in charge of what they eat and when (so, give healthy options at times that work best for the whole family); they're in charge of whether they eat and how much (so if they're not hungry, don't stress about it. They'll eat when they are).

  10. Miss Jill and Mister John

    I have good eaters and I am often asked these same questions.
    Our basic rules:
    1- Three meals and a snack every day… not more or less. These are timed by the clock to help kids establish a routine for their bodies.
    2- Don't use food to "buy time". We don't give snacks in the stroller or car unless it's part of the plan. Too many kids want a snack if they've got to sit still… and that kills their appetite.
    3- Serve meals in courses… start w/veggies when they are most hungry. Then move to protein. Finish w/carbs… It keeps my little ones from filling up on empty carb calories.
    4- Don't make a big deal when someone refuses something… the power of
    "hating" something is great and contagious! Let it go. Offer that "hated food" a few times but don't fight over it.
    5- Do talk about the importance of food. We know our meals are "grow food" and help our bodies grow. We also know that a treat like ice cream is "sometimes food" and we just get it sometimes.

    Good luck.. and don't stress…. I was told early on that toddlers esp are good at caloric management. So if they aren't eating at dinner, they aren't hungry and don't need it.

  11. Tia

    As a former picky eater, this is a great strategy for taking the drama out of eating. We try to follow this approach with our toddler and preschooler. It DOES get hard with the older one though; he's not a picky eater per se, but there are certain foods he won't eat and on some days he just randomly picks at foods he usually likes. And he's a little one — just 26 pounds at 3.5 years old and he doesn't seem to be growing much. So I worry he's not getting enough food. It's so tempting to become a short-order cook and make things he likes but I restrain myself because I know from personal experience that way leads long-term eating issues. I think it's nice that you have the benefit of seeing with 7 (soon 8!) kids that if the kids decide for themselves when they're hungry and what they'll eat and they turn out just fine.

  12. karen

    Normal! Ellyn Satter! Google her and read her division of responsibility! Books are usually available at the library.

  13. Tia

    Kendra, I know you make it a value to not waste food. How do you balance the making enough food with for everyone with not wasting food? Is there a strategy there? And is it easier with more people versus just a family of four?

    • Kendra

      Yes! Great question. If our kids don't finish a meal, it either goes to another kid who is still hungry, or just back into the pan for leftover day, or it goes to the chickens. It's definitely easier to reinforce the whole "getting to have food is a privilege" thing when there is almost always a sibling who will happily eat the rest of your dinner if you don't want it. And the older kids are modeling good manners (mostly) and good eating habits.

      I have a whole post on this topic here: How We Stopped Throwing Away Food

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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