Mental Health

5 simple ways to stop mealtime tantrums before they start

It’s dinnertime. Five minutes into the meal you’re surprised by how well it’s going.  Everyone is sitting together, and seems happy.  You let out a sigh of relief and it happens: full-blown meltdown mode.  

The crying, the food throwing, and the blood-curdling ear-piercing scream. 

You were so close to an enjoyable dinner.

Mealtime tantrums and food refusal are so common – especially during the toddler years.  So often it’s not about the food, but about what mealtimes look like.

Let’s talk about what you can do, tonight, to stop mealtime tantrums and food refusal to create a peaceful mealtime – that have nothing to do with the food.

But first, why all the tantrums?  

Tantrums are common in children,  and developmentally normal, especially toddler tantrums.  

As children develop lots of changes are taking place.  

They’re gaining language and independence, learning that they can say no and testing their limits and boundaries.

This leads to the perfect storm of mealtime tantrums and refusing food.

Child having a mealtime tantrum and refusing food

A child’s dinnertime tantrum is no fun for anyone

Now, How do we deal with these toddler’s tantrums at meal times?

These strategies are all about how to stop the tantrums and meltdowns before they happen. 

They’re about engaging children at mealtime so that it’s less likely they will have a tantrum or refuse food.  

And these strategies have nothing to do with what you’re serving, but are all about how we can show up at the table. 

5 ways to decrease mealtime tantrums and food refusal

1.  Don’t focus on what they are eating

Make mealtime about connection with your child. Remember the division of responsibility, you decide what’s on the menu, and your child decides what to eat.  

This is a key factor in mealtimes going smoothly.  

Make mealtimes about connection: talk to your child and have this be a time when you can create new memories.  

As parents, we provide the food and we let our children decide how much to eat, and that’s how we help our children to form a healthy relationship with food. 

This may feel a little counterintuitive, but by not focusing on the food we’re starting to drive up engagement because our child is feeling less stressed at the dinner table. 

Less stress = less tantrums = more eating!

2. Make the conversation about them, in a good way. 

Back in the early days of having one child, we would sit together at the table: my partner, my daughter, and myself.  

I noticed every time my partner and I would talk about something relatively boring (work, the weather, politics), my daughter would stand on her chair and give us the death-stare: what are you going to do about it.  

She was not engaged.  

Sometimes when the conversation is too “adult,”engagement with little ones comes to a halt which can lead to less eating and more meltdowns.

Once we shifted to keeping the adult (ie boring) topics to after she was asleep, dinnertime became more fun for us all.

Focus on your child’s day, what they like to talk about, and their interests.  

Kids love to talk about themselves.   

It’s about making sure the conversation is child appropriate. Sometimes this takes some work and thought, but can open up a new side of your child.

Child happy at mealtime with parents - not having a mealtime tantrum or refusing food

Engaging a child at mealtimes leads to more smiles and less tantrums

3. Ask engaging questions.  

Instead of “how was your day?” try something like, “what was one thing that made you smile today?” or “did anything challenge you today.”  

This is my favorite list of questions.  Start asking them questions that require more than a yes or no response.

I know for many of us, our kids are in school, preschool or daycare, so we don’t have that much time to connect during the day.  

Mealtimes can be one of those times where we are able to learn a little bit more about our child.

4. Make mealtimes fun. 

Be silly. Allow for play. There is a big difference between playing with (and throwing) food and food play/ exploration. 

Yes, it might be messy, but remember that eating is a sensory experience and the more we can let our little ones use their senses, the more they’re able to explore, and get used to the food.  

Food play should be 100% encouraged.  It’s about using all of our senses to explore food.  

What might this look like in practice?  

You have carrot and bell pepper and ask, “which one do you think is going to crunch louder.”   

You’re beginning to engage them from a sensory perspective, especially for kiddos who might be more selective. And letting them explore, touch, feel and smell their food.  

When we let kids explore, we’re letting them have fun which leads to mealtime engagement.

5. When they’re ready, let them get up from the table. 

Sometimes we’re desperate for our child to stay at the table for a long period of time, but often it doesn’t happen.  

Remember to set realistic expectations when it comes to eating. 

Some little ones may have a short attention span (think 5 minutes), and my philosophy is to allow them to get up from the table when they’re ready. 

You can instill manners that are in line with what you believe (for example, you may want your child to ask to be excused). 

I’ve seen that some of these mealtime tantrums can start occurring when our child has been sitting at the table for too long.  

And, if you’re working on some of the previous four strategies that I mentioned, they might stay at the table for longer because they’re more engaged at mealtimes.

Okay, but what do you do when the tantrum still happens?

Toddlers are full of surprises.  Even if you follow each step perfectly, mealtime tantrums and food refusal will still happen.  

So what can do you?  

In this post I talk about how to deal with these behaviors and how to respond.

And now you can breathe a little easier.

You’re prepared with an arsenal of strategies to handle toddler tantrums at the dinner table.  

You can be cool, calm and collected at mealtimes, and create a dinner filled with laughter and smiles – and avoid those ear-piercing blood-curtling screams.

When you’re ready for more tips to make mealtimes more fun, download my free guide: 4 steps to help your little one try new food for more!

5 ways to decrease mealtime tantrums and food refusal