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Often evening meals are too late in the day for the energy levels of your toddler. While you may be waiting for family members to come home so you can eat together, and feel like your time preparing a varied main meal, toddlers often become overwhelmed late in the day. 

The introduction of too many new foods, lots of chewing, and sitting nicely at the table often requires effort beyond their limits at that time.  

Having to wait too long if things run late can contribute to meltdowns such as:  

  • refusal to eat when food does arrive  
  • outright tantrums  
  • wanting to be fed by the parent or carer  
  • whining for an alternative (usually yoghurt or milk as they are easy to swallow)  
  • playing or throwing food rather than eating it.   

In the evening tension can run high, patience can wear thin and things often end badly. 

Consider moving the child’s mealtime to 4.30pm and not later than 5.00pm. There will be plenty of other opportunities to eat together as a family. Try serving the child’s main (protein/meat based) meal earlier in the day at lunch or even breakfast time if that is when their appetite is strongest (Tip: Use last night’s leftovers).  

When it comes to the evening, your toddler can have yogurt, porridge, a milkshake or something simple and easy to eat.  

The good news is that a full tummy at evening time does not necessarily translate to good sleep at this age. It is more dependent on their familiar routine. 

Your toddler is likely to wake up hungry in the morning ready for a big breakfast – make it count! Make use of eggs: they are perfect as french toast, scrambled, boiled, and even in pancakes.  

Meal times have become a nightmare 

What is going on here? Clearly serving up food to your family can evoke many emotional feelings: love, caring, providing and concern but also anxiety, stress, anger and distress when things do not go to plan. This emotional cocktail is strongest in the child-mother pair (or whoever spends most time feeding the child). It is unavoidable and, in fact, necessary that this relationship and bond will produce extreme feelings. 

However, when there is a lot of anxiety around the child accepting, trying, messing, eating or finishing the food and you feel rejected, disappointed and angry,  the child correspondingly feels pressured, coerced and confused!  

This situation is not conducive to a relaxed eating experience! In fact physiologically, the brain and stomach will send the body stress messages where digestion is stalled or turned off and the stomach knots up. 

These physical changes are real and in response to the ‘freeze – fight – flight’ hormones.  

Often these circumstances grow from months of frustration at mealtimes with parents having tried ‘everything’ and getting the food from plate to stomach is their only goal. After all, the buck stops with them! Eventually mealtimes turn into a vicious cycle of:  

  • high anxiety in anticipation of mealtime  
  • predictable refusal or picking at food  
  • coaxing by the parent, which fails  

culminating in annoyance, irritation and eventually a disastrous end to the meal. 

These events can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for every meal time as preparing food, kitchens, clattering dishes and cutlery all become strongly associated with stress, anxiety, frustration and an air of inevitability of outcome for everybody involved, including the child.  

A battle of wills over eating rarely has a positive outcome and your child will only learn that mealtimes are something to dread.  

Key Points to Remember  

  • Don’t force feed your child, it never  works.  
  • Try not to see it as a battle you  have to win  
  • Your child will not starve themselves deliberately.  

 Reversing turbulent meal times 

  • Back off when food is served! (physically and emotionally)  
  • Do not take it personally when food is rejected. Toddlers do not have the mental capacity to intend  to upset you.  
  • Try and involve your child with simple preparation tasks like washing vegetables, setting the table, stirring a mixture, kneading bread and even growing herbs or tomatoes on the window sill.  
  • Give two choices of food – ‘which one potatoes or rice?’
  • If you don’t want to hear “Ice-cream!”, don’t ask the question “What would you like for dinner?” 
  • If mealtimes are way out of control and your toddler is old enough to grasp the concept, consider filling a muffin tray with a selection of food which can be eaten easily. Put it on a shelf in the fridge or cupboard your child has access to so they can help themselves whenever, as control may be a primary issue and the whole emotional anxiety surrounding the process of mealtimes can be diffused. This is a good temporary measure for families really struggling to contain their emotional responses around mealtimes. Slowly, structure can be re-introduced when the heat has been taken out of the situation.  

Don’t feel bad about the situation you are in. Most families will go through some episode of food related crisis.  

No appetite at meal times  

There may be several things going on here. Commonly toddlers on the go prefer to drink their food. By filling up on milk, cordials or even fruit juice, they can fulfil their calorie intake and not have much drive or appetite to eat solid food. 

Check closely how much fluid your child is taking. More than 600ml of milk a day can blunt their appetite for solid food. Juice and cordial has a lot of sugar (even if fruit sugar), which can also take appetite away. 

Grazing on convenient packet foods like crackers, lollies, cookies, bread sticks and chips between normal mealtimes will also reduce their appetite. However, as long as they are ‘grazing’ on healthy food (like in the muffin tray) this can count as a reasonable range of acceptable foods during a day even though they are small snacks themselves. Some days will be like this. 

Conventional ‘mealtimes’ may not necessarily happen every day. 

Want to know more? 

The Raising Children Network – Toddler nutrition: mealtime 

Healthy Kids Association – Take action on fussy eaters