Toddlers are wild creatures. The emotions and defiance that I experience with my 3.5 year old on a daily basis are enough to make me pull my hair out and wonder if she has a mood disorder (nope, just big toddler feels).
Why are you crying? Oh, because you refused to let me zip your coat before getting in the car, but now that you're buckled into you car seat you do want it zipped?
Because your stuffed bunny won't stay sitting up (never mind that her head is ginormously out of proportion to her body)?
Because a cloud is covering the sun? (slight exaggeration, but not far off.)
Mealtimes can be a real struggle with these little humans that are testing their boundaries, learning independence and figuring out what mom and dad will put up with.
Thankfully, I've always had decent eaters, but that doesn't mean that we don't go through our meal time battles, either. Here are 7 tips that have helped us to get our kids to eat their dinners on a consistent basis.
1. Two-bite club: Last year, my daycare lady gave out a book called Two Bite Club that was about some cats (kids) who thought they didn't like the food that was offered, but once they tried two bites, they realized they did like it. The story struck a cord with my older daughter and we still use it today as an incentive to get her to at least try the meal. She's in this habit of turning up her nose before even trying it, but if we say "Well, you don't get to be in the two-bite club then," she generally will take at least two bites (and usually more).
2. Limit snacks: If your kids are anything like mine, they will not turn down a snack, no matter that they just had one 30 minutes ago. They get a snack after nap time at daycare, so we really try to not give anything once we get home from daycare because we've found that it will result in them not eat much at dinner. Yes, there is some whining, and yes, we do occasionally give in when we know dinner will take longer to prepare than usual. Once we stopped doing a post-daycare, pre-dinner snack, the kids have definitely eaten more at dinner consistently.
3. Dinner time is family time: Even if they refuse to eat the meal (let's be honest, it's mostly my 3.5 year old that puts up a fight), we still require them to stay at the table with the family. Dinner time is family time, and that means sitting with the family whether you are eating or not. With this rule in place, our daughter will usually decide to eat at least a few bites because she gets bored just sitting there while the rest of the family is eating, or decides that she is actually hungry.
4. No alternatives: Time for some tough love. We make one meal each night, no exceptions. If they don't eat it, then they don't eat it. Kids won't starve themselves, and I know that my kids eat plenty throughout the day, so if they barely touch dinner, I don't sweat it (too much). When they know there is no other alternative, they will eat if they are truly hungry.
5. Make food fun: Getting your kids involved in making their food is a great way to get them to eat more of it. My kids are constantly in the kitchen on their stools/learning tower while we make dinner, whether to watch us chopping veggies, to seeing the meat cooking in the pan, to swiping food off the counter while we cook. And they love to dump ingredients into a bowl or mix something up for us. Doing a twist on meals that you know they'll like is another way to make it fun. We love making homemade chicken nuggets and oven fries at home because 1. it's delicious 2. it's healthier than a Happy Meal and 3. we know the kids will chow down. Lastly, investing in a few small cookie cutter shapes could help turn boring cucumber slices or other foods into hearts or stars, and maybe that's just the thing your toddler needs to get him/her to eat.
6. Give them an easy win: We almost always plan to have something with the meal that we know they will like and eat, especially if we're making a new dish or something with a little spice, which can turn off my older daughter. A roasted vegetable is almost always a win, or quinoa/brown rice, or some kind of sauce to dip the food in. This way, we know that at least they will eat a little bit off their plate and not go to bed on an empty stomach.
7. Sticker chart: My older daughter has a sticker chart on the fridge with boxes to place stickers on when she does certain things like eat her dinner, brush and floss, stay in bed, etc. We started this about 8 months ago and it's worked really well. Since eating dinner well is part of the chart, she has to do it to complete the sticker chart and get her special treat (Paw Patrol figurine). After the first chart, we've been a little lax about filling the second one, but we still use it as an incentive when she's being particularly stubborn about eating.
A thought on bribes: Obviously, bribery is not the ideal way to deal with kids not eating. But we all know that in a desperate moment, it can be the easiest way to get toddlers to comply. When we do resort to this, we might say "If you don't eat your dinner, you don't get fruit." We don't say things like "take X more bites and you get a treat" or "if you don't eat, we're taking XYZ toy away" because those don't make for healthy associations with food. We really try not to use food as a punishment or reward, and I'm intentional about this because I struggled with this a lot in my college years and still do today sometimes. Yes, food can be fun and used for celebrations, but bribing kids with "treats" to get them to take X more bites isn't doing them any favors.
These are tips that have worked for us over the past few years, and I'm sure we'll continue to use as my younger daughter becomes more opinionated about her food, too.