The Food Fight: Getting Toddlers to Eat Without Tears

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I used to scoff at all the nannies and parents who would complain every day on social media about the children in their care who just wouldn’t eat. Up until my last nanny job, I was blessed with children who might have been picky, but sat down and ate quietly at the table with little complaint. I was a picky eater myself, so I had a bit of sympathy with kids who just didn’t like a lot of things. I engaged my mother’s rule -- three bites and you can be finished -- and found it bore fruit. So I was really confused by people who complained about their child’s eating habits. Why did food need to be a fight?

Well, then I met Glo-Worm, and I understood completely why food turns into a fight. Glo-Worm is a gorgeous 18-month-old girl I met last summer; we spent a wonderful four months together and I learned a lot about toddler behavior (a lot of which I forgot!). She went from being a happy, placid eater to a child who would not eat without a fight. At all. And it happened within the blink of an eye.

I begin to see just why people caution you not to judge others until you’ve walked in their shoes! I take back all my judgement now!

Glo-Worm loved to throw food off her tray onto the floor. It didn’t matter if she was starving or if she didn’t want to eat -- she’d throw food constantly. Two bites per meal, maybe, made it into her mouth, and they were normally hand-fed to her by me. She’d fight and twist angrily when I tried to put her into her high chair, and she’d scream and kick the chair, which was on wheels, almost across the room sometimes! She’d spit food back at me, even if she was hungry, and many mealtimes led to me staring at her despairingly while she threw a massive fit in her high chair. She wanted milk and milk only, all day, or simple carbs that did nothing for her. She refused most fruits and vegetables. She’d eat some meat, but preferred bread, rice, and cereal. In short, I started to dread mealtimes and snack times. It would be 45 minutes of a fight, and I had no idea how to stop it.

Food Struggles
Credit: mitchell3417.

Then I stumbled across a blog written by another daycare provider, NotMaryP, who writes a hilarious blog about her daycare charges. She taught me a method that I will never forget til my dying day, and the method is this: It’s not your job to ensure your child eats. It’s simply your job to ensure that the food is there for them to eat when they’re ready, and that it’s good food that will meet their nutritional needs.

Oh, what a wonderful feeling it was to read those words! I stressed constantly about Glo-Worm and her nutrition. I hand-fed her to make sure she ate something, because she’d tantrum and melt down due to being hungry half an hour later, and then still refuse to eat. I felt like a bad nanny. And getting permission, as such, not to have to worry about it constantly anymore was refreshing.

The method is this: Stop force-feeding your child. Stop making it into a power struggle. Serve nutritious foods that will meet your child’s needs. If the child doesn’t want to eat (though they must try one bite of the food, and will not be allowed to get down until they do), fine. Let them get down and play. When they inevitably will be hungry later, offer them the food that they disdained to eat earlier. If they don’t want it, fine. Don’t push. Eventually, the child will be so hungry that he or she will eat what you’re serving, and they’ll also learn that they do have control over when and how much they eat, but that you have control over what you serve them. It’s a win-win situation -- and it cuts down on power struggles by about a million.

I stopped fighting with Glo-Worm. If she wanted to throw a fit in her chair, I waited until she was finished and then let her get down. When she indicated hunger later, I gave her the same food she had at lunchtime. If she didn’t want to eat it, the cycle was repeated. I ended most days with her eating at least some of her lunch, and the meal was tear-free and calm. I also attempted to offer her food more often than simply at mealtimes, as I wondered if she was too hungry to settle down and relax enough to be able to eat. Her milk addiction probably stemmed from the fact that her molars were coming in and her mouth hurt, so I tried to serve her softer foods that were easier to eat.

If she decided to play her game of throwing things off the chair while watching gleefully for my reaction, I simply removed her tray, which left her at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. She’d usually try a tantrum, but she learned that I didn’t react to those, either, so she’d end up sitting and waiting for me to finish my lunch unless she could calm down. She learned that communicating appropriately with me (raising her arms, making noises or saying words that indicated she was finished) got her what she wanted, which was to get down or to cuddle with me. Mealtimes became calm, happy times, and I stopped being so frustrated.

I learned that what might work with one child will not work for another. I also learned that fighting at mealtimes leads to food issues later. NotMaryP saved my life with Glo-Worm! Try her method; it really works!

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