Ah, mealtime.  Many parents of toddlers will say that mealtimes are the time of day they dread the most.  Whether it’s because their children can’t sit still, throw food across the room or have become more “picky” with what they’ll agree to eat, it’s certainly a topic many parents struggle with.

If mealtime has become a battleground in your home, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1.) It is the parent’s job to offer healthy food options and it is the child’s job to choose what and how much he will eat.

As difficult as it may be, this is where parents have to realize that they can’t control whether or not (or how much) their kids eat.  Many parents worry that their kids will not get the proper nutrition or will wake up hungry if they don’t eat a full meal.  Remember that kids will take in exactly what they need so long as they are being offered healthy choices.  Many pediatricians will say that it’s more important to look at how kids eat over the course of a week versus just one or two days.  Take the pressure off yourself.

To avoid a power struggle, simply (and calmly) offer healthy food items (for some kids, it can take 10 times of being exposed to a new food before a child will try it) and let your child take it from there (difficult as that may be).  Also, be sure your child is well hydrated throughout the day.  Resist the urge to beg, plead or bribe your child to eat, as that will only fuel a power struggle.

2.) Be careful of becoming a short-order cook.

If your child does not want to eat what you have prepared do not make a separate meal.  Instead, have two standard choices available such as fruit or yogurt/cheese (preferably, the fruit is handheld or pre-cut so that mealtime is not disturbed for everyone else).  As your kids get older and they do not want what is being served, they can have the option to make their own meal (peanut butter and jelly, anyone?). If necessary, you can tell your child, “I’m sorry to hear you do not like what is being served.  Your options are fruit or yogurt.  You can decide.”

3.) Don’t ban “treats” or dessert.

When we deny our kids (even ourselves) of treats, the treats end up becoming the “forbidden food,” which makes it all the more interesting, desirable and what they will want the most.  Instead, we want to promote a healthy relationship with food.  Rather than thinking in terms of “good” foods and “bad” foods, it’s important to think in terms balance, moderation and portion control. So, consider allowing a small treat during the day (say after school) or, if you prefer, with a meal or after a meal (examples include a few m&m’s, a few chocolate chips, a piece of candy. Again, the key is moderation and portion control).  Don’t feel that your kids have to finish what’s on their plate in order to have dessert. This sets up a vicious cycle where kids view dessert as the forbidden food and rush through their meals to attain it.  When treats and dessert are not seen as off limits, they lose their power.  Again, parents have control over when and how many treats their kids can have. Better yet, you can ask your child when he would like to have his treat. Once he’s had his “allowance” for the day, he’ll know he can have another treat tomorrow (and if he forgets, you can remind him). Once kids are allowed to have these special foods, their desire for more and more naturally decreases.

4.) Kids model what they see.

Make sure you have a variety of healthy options on your plate.  Model how fun it is to try new foods and how enjoyable meals can be.  Again, simply enjoy your food without putting pressure on your child to enjoy his.

5.) Try finding out what your child is willing to eat.

Sit down with your child at a time when things are calm. Enlist his help in making a list of the foods he is willing to eat and consider setting up a meal chart with him.  For example, choose a mealtime (breakfast, lunch or dinner), add the days of the week and for each day of the week, have your son choose one of the items on the list that he would like to eat (using pictures of the items can be helpful).  Getting kids involved in the creation of routines is a respectful approach that models problem-solving and decision making, while increasing the likelihood of gaining cooperation.

6.) Get kids involved in the process of cooking and meal preparation.

Our kids are always looking for ways to belong, feel significant and in control.  What better way to help meet these needs then by enlisting their help in the kitchen? Take your child to the grocery store with you.  Go to the produce area and point out all of the vibrant colors.  Pick up a vegetable and ask him what he thinks it is.  Talk about where it comes from and the amazing things that fruits and vegetables do for our bodies.  Remember, food is energy! Ask your child what he would like to help you make using the fruits and vegetables he sees.  Get out a recipe book, preferably one with pictures and give him some choices.  Not only is this a way of educating your child, but think about the bond and sense of connection you are creating in the process of choosing healthy meals and cooking together.

Above all, give your child the message that you love him unconditionally and trust that he will make healthy choices for himself, when he’s ready.  It takes two to have a power struggle, so avoid accepting the invitation by trying the above suggestions.

Bon Appetit!