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Toddler Table Strategies

When my son Ian was about 18 months old, something happened to both of us. The boy who ate two breakfasts, a lunch bigger than my own, multiple snacks, and still ran to his highchair for dinner, disappeared. Suddenly his favourite phrase was “no dinner!”, and he’d only pick at perennial favourites the rest of the day.

In return, I became the mother I swore I would never be…the mother who stands in front of her fridge suggesting alternatives to what was served, and frantically making another meal just to get something into her child. Here’s a conversation sampler:

Ian: I don’t WANT my dinner.

Me: But you love chicken and green beans.

Ian: I want to get DOWN.

Me: (now in front of the fridge) How about some yogurt?

Ian: No yogurt.

Me: Tuna salad?

Ian: No tuna salad.

Me: How about a grilled cheese sandwich?

Ian: NO!!

At this point, my husband would let Ian out of the chair and assure me our son would eat when he was hungry. I had my doubts. This is a boy who’s hovered around the 20th percentile for weight since birth. I imagined those hard-earned pounds falling off him. I discovered I wasn’t alone. One dad told me the only time he doesn’t enjoy being a parent is at dinner time, the fights with his son are so intense. Another parent told me a lot of kids go through this between about 18 months and two years – just another phase, she promised. Then I saw a notice on a community message board for a two-hour workshop called “Toddler at the Table”. It promised to solve the dinner dilemma.

In a stark classroom a few evenings later, 12 anxious mothers gathered, spilling their own stories – songs about snow peas, and children who refused all fruit. Vancouver nutritionist Kristen Yarker-Edgar listened with sympathy and then gave us ammunition to win this nightly war. “Dinner with your toddler is like a dance,” she said. “Each of you has to learn your role.” It sounded simple. Women smiled at each other and tense shoulders seemed to relax just a little.  She told us the parents’ role is to plan, prepare and present nutritious, age-appropriate food for our toddlers. That meant no more asking if they’d rather have spaghetti or salmon. What goes on the table is our decision, and the toddler should be eating what everyone else eats, when everyone else eats. The more adults at the table the better, she says – family dinners help a fussy toddler to eat.

Then she said the craziest thing. She said the child’s role is to decide what they’ll eat, how much, and even whether they’ll eat. Whether? And this was okay? Kristen promised the more we backed off, the better the child would eat. And that if some night they refused everything, that was okay, too. As parents, we should calmly let them down from their chair, and then finish our own dinner. They don’t get their meal later. Dinner comes at dinner time. The moms raised fears about them waking in the night hungry. She suggested a small bedtime snack (that doesn’t mean you pull the pork chop out of the fridge).

I couldn’t imagine doing this. Just letting my son walk away? Wouldn’t that just encourage this behaviour? But I agreed to give it a shot. The result was amazing. The first night began as a battle as usual, but this time, instead of trying to cajole him, I just said “Okay, get down, but Daddy and I are going to finish our food.” He jumped out of his chair and trotted off to play. But his aura of triumph was short-lived. Within minutes he came wandering back asking us to play with him. We refused, but invited him to come eat dinner with us instead. He said no, even as he was climbing back into his chair. Without commenting on his return, I gave him his dinner, which he promptly ate.

Our lives are changed. It’s not that Ian always comes running for his dinner now (although he sometimes does). I do my part of the dance, and relax. There’s little tension at our dinner table. If he doesn’t eat more than a few peas, I try to be fine. It’s tough. It seems to be my nature to press food at him. But most of the time I’m willing to let it go. I admit, sometimes I fall into my old ways, urging him to take “one more bite”, or promising a cookie if he finishes his fish. But doesn’t every dancer stumble now and then?

Kelly Ryan is a Vancouver-based writer and radio reporter and frequent contributor to ParentsCanada.

Published in November 2010.

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