Turn Mealtime Madness into Mealtime Happiness


Not too long ago, I dreaded dinnertime.

Evenings looked something like this: flying forks, the food I lovingly cooked splattered on the floor, adults yelling and kids crying (sometimes the other way around), and bickering over what “one more bite” actually meant. My husband and I were constantly arguing with each other and/or our toddler, and there were many nights I didn’t finish my dinner because I was so upset. Finally, after months of this chaos, we decided to take back dinnertime.

As we discussed the mealtime issue, two themes started to surface:

  • Toddlers want power and predictability.
  • Parents want power and predictability.

Toddlers need control to learn boundaries and order, and parents need power to teach their kids these skills. They also love structure and expect consistent behavior from grown-ups. This is a tough situation as is, but add on that parents are hard-wired to feed their offspring, but these offspring are hard-wired to say “NO!” to everything, and life can easily become a “you-know-what” show.

Ultimately, we realized that if we wanted more control and actual eating, we had to take a step back. Here are some tactics we discussed and are working for us.

Enjoy taking back dinnertime!

  1. Make a plan and stick with it – I’ve already established my love of plans, so no surprise here. As with most aspects of parenting, you and your partner must be on the same page for your strategy to work. Decide how you feel about bribes, what counts as “a bite,” how to sneak veggies in, etc. My husband came up with a “high-five” reward system, since I’m against sweets as bribes, and it works wonders. Get creative: “high-fives” with feet are especially fun!
  2. Lower your expectations – We took the pressure off of dinner to be adult time. Now, we look forward to family talks, hearing about what is going on in our three-year-old’s growing imagination, and what new screams the 18-month-old has learned. My husband and I still speak to one another to make sure the boys know adults can have their own conversations, but we save the real stuff for after bedtime.

    Full plates, full tummies
    Full plates, full tummies
  3. Options not alternatives –  Instead of cooking several different meals that may or may not please everyone, I make sure there are several options that all go together. Toddlers LOVE feeling empowered and independent, so it’s a win-win. The best example is a taco dinner: meat, tortillas, rice, cheese, sour cream, avocado, and salad. This way, each toddler can load up his plate with his own choices. He feels like he’s in control, and I’m doing a happy dance inside because I got him to willingly eat avocado. Mealtime Madness blog
  4. Trust your child and try to let go –  Only your child knows when his/her tummy is full. Your obligation is to provide them with healthy foods throughout the day–the rest is up to them. It’s a good way to strengthen that “letting go” muscle we’ll have to flex as they get older.
  5. Don’t underestimate the power of your example – Even when they don’t eat vegetables, they see my husband and I enjoying ours. It may not yield immediate results, but I have hope that this normalizes healthy eating for them and one day they might choose to eat some spinach from a delicious buffet spread. A mom can dream, right?

What are some ways you and your family avoid and handle tough mealtimes?