When Abram was a baby, he was an EATER. Whatever we threw at him- avocado, sweet potato, squash, carrots, cereal- you name it, he ate it. We were so proud of our adventurous eater, a baby who participated in baby-led weaning with gusto. As the months went on, that adventurous palate faded and we were left wondering how to make dinner easier with toddlers.
He still ate copious amounts- he had the chubby cheeks to prove it!- as long as it was chips, or something else he loved. When it came to his old favorites- avocado, sweet potato, squash, carrots, cereal- you name it, he took whatever we threw at him, and threw it back at us. Like, literally.
Abe’s pickiness really came to a head one night at dinner. Convinced that we had to get some food in him one way or another, we tried to force him to take some bites of his food. He stalled, we stalled. He cried, we cried. We tried to put the food in his mouth, he tried to take it out. It was a twenty minute battle of begging him to eat before we threw in the towel. The dinner went uneaten, and all we felt was defeated, and sad.
I wracked my brain to try to figure out where we’d gone wrong, and more importantly, how we could make dinner easier with our toddler. Lila was, and IS, picky, but we’d been pros at avoiding dinner time battles until now. Why was that? And how could we replicate those results?
I hit the internet, scouring for ways to make dinner easier with toddlers, and remembered all of the best practices we’d used to help our picky toddler the first round. It’s been a month now, but I’m happy to say that things with Abram have come a long way. If you, too, find yourself with a picky toddler on yours hands, here’s what research (and first hand experience!) says you can do when it comes to avoiding dinnertime battles.
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1. Know What Toddlers Should Be Eating
I know it seems like toddlers are burning a million calories a day with the amount of running around that they do. As a baby, your child was experiencing rapid growth and needed a relatively high caloric intake to feed that growth.
Toddlers are simply different. Compared to babies, toddlers need less calories per pound to receive appropriate energy and nutrition. (Source) Toddlers need an average of 1,000 calories per day, and you might be surprised at how quickly those calories add up. They physically just need less fuel than the rest of us do, and no amount of begging or pleading will make them need more.
If you take a look at the serving sizes for toddlers, you’ll see the amounts they need are actually quite small (think 1/4 of an apple or half of a string cheese). As a rough rule, you can take the serving size for adults and cut it in half – and then cut it in half AGAIN.
According to HealthyChild.org, a toddler serving is only 1/4 the size of an adults, so a 1/4 sandwich is actually pretty appropriate for a two or three year old. So aim for balance among the food groups, but also keep in mind- they don’t need all that much food to receive the nutrients that they need. So if you’re wondering how to make dinner easier with toddlers, you might want to start by lowering your ideas of how much they “should” be eating.
2. Aim for Balance Over Time
Toddlers are like camels- they’ll go days without a proper meal, and then suddenly, they’ll be eating you out of house and home. You’ll find yourself unable to predict their appetites. Some days, they’ll eat two or three eggs with toast, fruit, and yogurt, and the next day they may say it’s all “yucky” and only lick the butter off of the toast.
Toddlers are weird like that, but the important thing is to look at the day or week as a whole. They may not get perfectly balanced nutrition each day because of their strange eating patterns, but as long as their weekly diet consists of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and lean proteins, that one day food-strike isn’t going to make a huge difference.
3. Present a Variety of Foods to Your Picky Toddler
When it comes to avoiding dinnertime battles with a picky eater, one of the best things you can do for your child is to present new or non-preferred foods to them on a regular basis. Whether they eat these new foods or not is up to them (see point 6 below), but you need to have “strange” foods make an appearance quite often. In fact, according to Zero to Three, it often takes as many as 10-15 appearances before a child will even try a new food.
It may take days for your kids to even allow the peas to stay on their plate, but you never know when you’ll catch them on a hungry day and they may be hungry enough to give them a try. Try not to worry as much about whether or not they are eating these foods, and get some comfort out of knowing they were presented with a balanced meal. You’ve held up your end of the bargain.
4. Don’t Let Your Picky Eater Fill Up on Snacks
With some notable exceptions, we are not much of a snacking family (well, I should clarify- that rule exists for the kids. I sneak-snack chips ALL DAY, E’RYDAY. But as a tax-paying grown up, I’ve earned that right.)
I’ve found that if I give my kids too many preferred snacks throughout the day, they’ll fill up on those, or even hold out on proper meals in hopes that a tastier snack will appear. If you believe your child is genuinely hungry, offer a food that they vaguely like- think some carrot sticks or some cheese. Resist giving them more processed snacks throughout the day, because the carbs and sugars can be SO much more appealing than veggies and lean proteins.
Side Note: This rule goes out the window under the following conditions- airplanes, very quiet restaurants, road trips, big sister’s dance recital, mom is making a work call, someone is sick, or when you have to survive some other kind of harrowing experience. I mean, we’re not complete masochists.
5. Give Two Foods They Like, and One They Don’t
You want to present a variety, but let’s face it- kids do need to eat something, sometime. The best way make dinner easier with toddlers (and get some peace of mind!) is to create some balance between preferred on non-preferred (read: they don’t like it) foods on their plate.
I will give my kids what I feel is an appropriate amount of an item from each of the food groups (I mean, ish. We do what we can). They are welcome to each as much or as little of their plate as they’d like, but we don’t do seconds on anything until the full dinner has been eaten.
If she asks for seconds on her preferred items, we ask her to “eat around the plate” before we serve her another helping of something she loves. It encourages her to try new foods, but without punishing or coercing her to do so. (And if she’s hungry enough, I bet that salad won’t taste too bad after all).
6. Avoid Making Separate Meals for Picky Kids
This one can be tricky to do while following the 2/3 rule I mentioned above. But I just can’t become a short order cook- it doesn’t benefit me or my kids. To combat this, my kids eat a lot of “deconstructed” meals, which makes avoiding dinnertime battles SO much easier.
So let’s say for example that my family is having this Mediterranean Chicken Salad for dinner, which my oldest daughter happens to hate. Her plate that evening will have some salad on her plate, prepared the way the rest of the family’s is (non-preferred). But it will also have romaine lettuce dressed with Caesar salad (preferred) and some chicken cooked without marinade with a sprinkle of seasoning salt (preferred).
I won’t make a separate meal, but I can make the ingredients a bit more appetizing to my kids. I remove chicken before adding sauce to the pan, for example, or serve vegetables on the side instead of mixed in with the salad. When I make a stir fry, I remove some of the vegetables before adding the stir fry sauce and sprinkle with seasoning salt instead, and serve it next to a 1/4 of plain white rice.
It’s not a perfect solution, but I have found a lot of peace (and a lot less cooking!) by serving my kids’ plates slightly differently, but with the same ingredients. The purpose is two-fold. First, I’m am feeding them a variety of foods. And secondly, I am avoiding falling back on preferred foods to fill up their little tummies.
7. The “Wh” Rules of Toddler Meal Responsibilities
The best advice I’ve ever read about raising kids to have a good relationship with food comes from Ellen Satter. Her research explains that food responsibilities should be divided between kids and their parents. Parents are in charge of choosing What, Where, and When kids eat, and kids are in charge of how much (or whether or not) to eat what is presented. (Read her full article here.)
At our house, that means that I announce the meal or snack time, and I decide what to serve them based on the concepts listed above. I put the food in the designated spot, like the kitchen table. And then my responsibility is up. The kids are in charge of how the rest of the meal goes.
8. Make Meal Times More Fun
I’m not saying that you need to perform a song and dance routine to get your child to eat. But there are easy ways to change up your presentation that might encourage your kids to try new things. Here are some ideas on ways to make meal times a little more fun for kids (and, hopefully, a little less stressful for you!)
Offer Dips with Fruits and Veggies.
Don’t stress too much if they just try the dip, but show them how they can use a carrot to scoop up ranch, or how to get some cool whip on their strawberry.
Make Their Food More Fun
It doesn’t take much to make foods look more appealing to kids. Simple sandwich cutters can do wonders, or even adding a touch of food coloring or a few sprinkles will make a difference. When I have a little extra time on my hands (read: I’ve done this twice), I’ll use a condiment bottle to make their pancakes into letters or simple shapes.
Use a Bento Box or Ice Cube Tray to Present Finger Foods.
For some reason, having their food in little containers is more fun (and less daunting!) to toddlers. This is a great way to ensure that kids are presented with a variety of foods, but is more appealing to little ones.
Use an innovative plate.
Our friend swears by these “finish line” plates. Kids eat their way through the meal to the finish line on the end. Beware though- you don’t want this to become a battle, so if your child isn’t into it, try not to force them to eat the entire “track.”
Let Your Kids Help In the Kitchen
Kids LOVE to do things themselves, and that extends to food prep as well. We love our kitchen helper kids’ platform, and let the kids join us in the kitchen whenever possible. They use these kid-safe knives to chop veggies and fruits, and are often tempted to sample what they’ve cut, too.
Letting kids choose their own recipes can also get them interested in trying new foods. Put them in charge of the menu planning once in a while with this kid-friendly cookbook.
Keep Meal Times Routine (But Fun!)
Meal times are for conversations, word games, and family time. We focus on that more, and on what they’re eating less. We try to keep meals quick, and encourage kids to sit with us until everyone has finished.
Nobody’s perfect, and you certainly don’t have to be. But we’ve been there, and we want you to know that A.) You’re not alone and B.) It doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re looking to do some more focused work on your child’s diet, you can sign up for our newsletter to receive a FREE copy of our toddler nutrition study & plan. It’s three amazing pages of tracking, reflection, and plan-making to help you figure out how to make dinner easier with toddlers.
Got follow up questions, or tips we haven’t included? Leave us a comment below and we’ll reply to it ASAP!
Looking for more ways to help your toddler develop healthy habits? Check out these posts next-
- The Dark Side of Having Kids That Are “Great” Eaters
- Toddler Muffins Recipe
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