Managing Mealtime Chaos

picky toddler

Once again, my two-year-old reminds me just how much mental maneuvering parenthood involves. It’s a perpetual negotiation, a battle of wills, an unnerving power struggle, and the more I attempt to control a situation, the more I lose. Just when I think I have a relatively smooth routine down pat, with scheduled mealtimes, the Toddler in Charge is quick to point out my foolishness.

I seriously think the only reason he complies, for short periods of time, is for the perverse sense of gratification he gets throwing a monkey wrench into the mix, just to stand on the sidelines in awe, watching intently as I have a meltdown – he gets a kick from my begging, pleading, making deals – it makes him feel powerful. And superior, I'm sure.

As of right now - well, actually, this little issue began just before Christmas - Corbin decided he was too big for his highchair and preferred to sit in a booster seat at the big table; which was great, but … he doesn’t want his booster any longer, either. So, I negotiated a great deal – one that enabled him to sit at the big table, in a big daddy chair, and eat his meal from a big boy plate - a deal that guaranteed we’d sit as a happy little family and share a meal. He was all for it. Wonderful, I thought. Everybody wins. Not so fast, mom, he sneered - like that evil, scary doll, Chucky, and took off running with a piece of broccoli from his plate.

Now, eating while running is dangerous, and because I’m such a stickler for safety, I went chasing after him, trying to coax him back into his seat, which just wasn’t gonna happen. He thought it was a game, and you know how toddlers enjoy playing games. Ha! He had a tantrum at the table, while Jim and I tried to chew our food in between his howls, but seriously, who can digest one bite under those conditions?

So… I let him go.

At our family Christmas party, he ran around and threw a football while everyone else sat down to eat. When we got home, he was starving. He ate two all-beef hot dogs and fell asleep. It was the same way when we went to my sister-in-laws house on Christmas day; he refused to sit and eat with everyone else, opting instead to eat-on-the-run by stealing bites from everyone’s plate like a beggar. This scenario played out once again when the family gathered to celebrate my mother-in-laws birthday a week ago; except Jim attempted to strong arm him into sitting in his booster, and… oh, my, God…he screamed so loud I swear the glass globes hanging above the table shattered into a million tiny pieces and crystallized the plates beneath it.

And so has been our mealtime routine for a month.

His capriciousness about food is disconcerting, especially because he refuses to eat meat, or eggs. And I am, once more, re-learning the fine art of picking my battles.

Forcing the issue is counterproductive, and I realize that by offering him a little independence, and more choices throughout the day, I can still keep somewhat of a routine flowing smoothly and mealtime meltdowns to a minimum. Anything (well, almost) for a peaceful, calm meal.

I’ve taken cues from him as to how he likes his food served: no sauce on pasta – sauce must be on the side so he can dip it. No spaghetti – it gets caught in his throat. He likes pasta shapes that are easy to pick up and dip. Also, he is more likely to eat - a few bites, anyway -when I allow him to grab a chair and "help" me cook, and get his own place setting from the silverware drawer.

I also let him pull his toddler table and chair into the living room, or kitchen, and while I’m busy cooking, he will sit at his table and graze on fresh veggies or fruit - whatever I'm dicing- run around, watch a show for a minute, and come back to the table and take a few more bites.

While this solution works for us at home, there are challenges: dining out isn’t an option, given the circumstances, because he doesn’t like being restrained in the highchair and we certainly cannot allow him to run wild like a banshee in public. The last time we tried that, I had only two bites of my salad before I found myself pacing the exit door - and let me just say - that was the most expensive salad I’ve ever NOT eaten!

I realize he will outgrow this behavior and eventually come to love many different foods, even decide to sit at the dining room table and eat like a normal, well-mannered young man, at some point.

Until then, he is winning this one battle.

And, I’m okay with that.

So, how do you manage a picky eater and handle mealtime chaos?

Carrie Hamilton-Service is a blogger at Maneuvering Motherhood. She lives in Ohio with her husband and toddler while mothering two daughters from a 279-mile distance. She loves coffee, gourmet cooking, and trying her husband's patience.


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