Between picky eating, ever-changing food preferences, fickle appetites and hangry tantrums, keeping a little kid fed can be hard work. As a parent or caregiver, you want to nourish your child, help them build a healthy relationship with food and keep your cool during those tense mealtime moments. No easy feat!
Picky eating typically sets in around the 18-month mark when toddlers enter the developmental stage called pre-operational thinking and become more inquisitive about the world, including food, said registered dietitian and feeding therapist Sarah Almond Bushell.
“They enter a brain developmental phase called ‘food neophobia,’ which is a true fear of food,” Bushell, who specializes in infant and children’s nutrition, told HuffPost. “It triggers the adrenaline response —fight, flight, freeze — and is thought to hark back to our cavemen days when inquisitive little people could accidentally poison themselves by putting non-food objects into their mouths. Think poisonous berries.”
Most kids grow out of this phase around the age of 4 or 5. But “when parents panic and adopt all kinds of tricks and tactics to try and get their children to eat, it can make fussy eating worse and prolong the phase,” Bushell said.
To address common sources of toddler food tantrums constructively, registered dietitian Alyssa Miller devised five “pocket phrases” for feeding kids — a list of smart-yet-simple responses parents can whip out to stave off a meltdown.
“For me, when my kids are hungry — or hangry rather — or breaking down, my brain would go blank,” Miller, the mother of three who runs the @nutrition.for.littles Instagram account, told HuffPost. “It’s really hard to think of what to say in the moment when your toddler is upset. Your mama heart hurts, and you’re also wanting to handle the situation in the best possible way.”
Miller said she came up with these pocket phrases because they’re easy to remember and help “create some distance and calm in the moment” but still adhere to her parenting values.
Here are five good phrases to keep handy:
1. “It’s OK, you don’t have to eat it.”
Pull this out when your child refuses to eat something on their plate.
“Often toddlers will yell ‘Noo!’ or ‘Yucky!’ when they see something they don’t want to eat,” Miller said. “So this is a great way to level the playing field and take the stress out of it.”
She’s noticed that sometimes when you remove the pressure of having to eat a particular food, the child feels more freedom around their choices and may decide to take a bite.
“I still use this one with my 7-year-old,” Miller said. “They just want to know they’re in charge of what goes in their body, and this reinforces it.”
2. “That sounds yummy. It’s not on the menu today, but maybe next week.”
Use this go-to response when making one dish, but your kids ask for another.
“We typically see kids asking for their favorites and things we have deemed ‘kid food’ — mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, buttered noodles, pizza, etc.,” Miller said.
“They just want to know they’re in charge of what goes in their body.”
When you already have a meal or snack planned, let your child know that the food they’re requesting isn’t on today’s menu but that they will have it again soon.
This can “alleviate the stress they might feel about not getting that food today,” Miller said.
3. “Looks like you’re all done. We can try again later.”
Whip this one out when your child’s mealtime behavior isn’t meeting your expectations. Maybe they’re repeatedly throwing food on the floor, standing on their chair or screaming.
Sometimes ending the meal is the best course of action, Miller said. You may want to scream in frustration, too, but try to take a breath and remain calm.
“Letting them know that the behavior they’re exhibiting is communicating that they’re all done is effective in teaching them that it’s not just our words that matter but our actions,” she said.
“Letting them know calmly that we can try again later takes any shame away from the behavior and lets them know you’re on their team and we can work together to figure out how to have a successful mealtime later on when emotions aren’t as high.”
4. “Check in with your tummy. We won’t be eating again until dinner.”
Did your kiddo only take a bite of their snack or barely touch their plate at lunch? Try this pocket phrase to help them get in tune with their hunger cues.
“When they’ve decided they’re all done with the meal, we want to gently remind them to check in with their body, which teaches them over time that their body can communicate with them. All they have to do is listen,” Miller said. “Then by following up with when they’ll be eating next, we set the expectation and let them in on the plan, which is very helpful when we are consistent with the meal and snack routine.”
Eventually, they will learn to eat during these designated times and build hunger in between.
“Of course, this takes time and gentle reminders often!” Miller added.
5. “Hmm, looks like we’re all out. I’ll put it on the list.”
Running out of your kid’s favorite snack can be disappointing to them, which can sometimes lead to a meltdown. Try responding with this phrase to soften the blow.
“Reminding them that we can ‘put it on the list’ takes the stress out of the situation, as many little ones may not understand that just because we are out right now doesn’t mean we’ll never have that food again,” Miller said. “Their brains are developing but often can’t predict what will happen in the future.”
You want your kid to know that you can stock up during your next grocery trip.
“When we teach them that those foods aren’t gone forever, it can end the tantrum and help them learn that food isn’t scarce and more will come,” Miller said.
Making These Phrases Work For Your Family
The key is to use these pocket phrases consistently and follow through on your promises to your kids around food. In other words, if you say you’re going to add Goldfish to the grocery list, you need to buy Goldfish the next time you’re at the store. Likewise, if you say you’ll add pizza to the menu next week, then you need to actually serve pizza. This builds trust around your kids’ access to food, and in your relationship, Miller said.
Once you have established trust, these phrases can help calm your child down in the heat of the moment. But, of course, they won’t work 100% of the time. Even adults have hangry meltdowns now and then.
“These phrases help us reset expectations and communicate how mealtimes and food work in our household.”
“It’s normal and OK to get disappointed when your favorite food isn’t available, and you were looking forward to it,” Miller said. “Just last week, my husband ate leftovers I had planned to eat for lunch, and I wasn’t too happy about it. Often the big emotions that come up are caused by our little ones having unmet expectations. These phrases help us reset expectations and communicate how mealtimes and food work in our household.”
While Miller’s five phrases cover common situations, they won’t address every issue that arises. So you can also come up with your own pocket phrases for recurring struggles in your household.
“When you identify a consistent trigger for your little one to meltdown at the table,” Miller said, “it’s time to find a pocket phrase you can memorize and repeat.”