Knowing how to talk to toddlers at meals might seem like a really natural, or easy, thing for a parent to do. After all, you talk to them all day – or maybe you listen to them talk all day (toddlers love a good story!) – so it’s easy peasy right? Well…not always!
I hear from many concerned parents who are wondering what to say when their toddler asks this at a meal, or says that about what’s being served. Or maybe their toddler seems to have 101 questions during dinner, and they’re wondering how important it is to answer them, or how much detail to give, or what’s even considered pressuring or influencing them to eat.
“Why are we having chicken Momma?”
“What kind of sauce is that Daddy?”
“But I wanted french fries!”
“Eww gross, what’s that??”
I’m thinking at least some of these are familiar if you’re the parent, or caregiver, to a toddler. So how would I respond? Well, having been through this phase of toddlerhood with my boys, I have a few tricks up my sleeve that will not only help you manage the constant stream of questions with confidence and ease, but that will actually help encourage your toddler to eat their food – without bribing, pressuring, or tricking them to do so!
I also share all the details on this week’s podcast episode, if you prefer to listen during naptime, check that out here.
Step 1: Do NOT focus on eating or nutrition
Let’s start off by saying that I know this is going to be tricky. I also know that you’ve probably heard me talk about the division of responsibility, and how it’s up to your child to decide if they’ll eat anything from what you offer, and how much they’ll eat of what’s offered. So we know that it’s not our job to influence them in these areas.
How then do we gently nudge them towards trying a food, without actually pressuring them? What counts as pressure? I’ve got a whole post on the different types of pressure, because it really isn’t always as obvious as you may think, so check that out if you have questions or concerns about that.
For now, let’s focus on what you can do. You can choose to not focus on eating at all. That’s right. I want you to approach mealtimes with your toddler with the mindset that this is not about eating and nutrition at all. Shocking coming from a pediatric dietitian, I’m sure!
Instead, I want you to look at each and every mealtime as an opportunity to build up their self-esteem, and really simply, to just talk with your child. Yes, having a conversation may be more entertaining, or simple, with a 3 or 4 year old, but I want you to apply this to your mealtimes with your younger toddlers too (think about a 13 month old) – even if it’s a very one-sided conversation! Just focus on the conversation, having fun, and enjoying family time together, as best as you can.
So talk. Talk with your spouse or partner, talk out loud to your toddler, and to their siblings. Talk about anything open ended that takes their mind off food.
Step 2: Only state the facts
Let’s talk about some specific “What to say when” scenarios. First, what should you say to your toddler when serving them their meal? In this scenario, I want you to be factual…keep it simple, and short.
So when you’re serving a meal, and you put the food on the table, try and just state the facts – “We’re having chicken and peas and rice.” They may ask for more detail, or you can offer it up yourself if you think they’d want to know. This may look like saying “This is chicken and it’s marinated in honey and soy sauce.”
What if they ask more questions (as we know some toddlers love to do!)? You could also make a statement about the ingredients. So for example, you could say: “Honey is a sweet sauce.” It’s good to describe properties of food to your toddler, but remember to keep it all about the facts! Avoid saying “Oh this sauce has honey in it, it’s so delicious.” Or, “Honey is sweet, you like sweet things, you’re gonna love it!” Those types of phrases are not strictly factual, they’re more than that, they’re subjective. And subjective statements like that, can feel like pressure to your toddler.
Step 3: Describe the food – if necessary
Essentially, you can describe the properties, and what they can expect from a food, if they continue to ask more questions. An example of this would be: “This is rotini pasta, it’s like macaroni, but the shape is different. This is a spiral.” Or “This is called an egg roll. It has a crunchy outside and a soft inside.” Remember, most toddlers are neophobic (scared of new foods), and therefore are weary of what things are. So bringing in that familiarity by relating one food to another that they know and enjoy, like in the pasta example, will help to decrease that fear and let them know what to expect. Now, if they respond with something like “I don’t like crunchy food,” you can then respond by saying “That’s ok.”
Here’s the thing though, you can still ask if they want a piece because sometimes they just want to express their feelings and opinions. And even if it sounds like their opinion is that they don’t want any, don’t assume that! They might still be willing to explore it (even if they don’t eat it). Asking them if they want a piece wouldn’t be considered pressuring because you aren’t trying to influence them. You’ve been very factual when presenting it, and you just want to know if they’d like to have a piece.
Step 4: Keep it short
My next tip is something you’ve probably already noticed me say…try and be as concise as possible with all your answers. Don’t elaborate too much, because this runs the risk that you’ll start to say things that either turn them off, or you’ll start to get into health talk or various forms of pressure. They really just want a factual response, and I’m telling you, silence is golden (in this case anyways)! After using any of the example statements I provided above, I want you to stay silent. Give it some time, pause, see if they respond, and then move on with your conversation if they don’t. Don’t feel like you have to fill in the gaps when it comes to food talk, or comments they make in return, because sometimes that can make things worse.
Step 5: Use these 6 words when they say “I don’t like it!”
It’s bound to happen, at some point your toddler will tell you that they don’t like something. And when they do, how you respond sets the stage for what happens next. So, when they say they don’t like a food, these are the 6 words that you want to say… “You don’t have to eat it.” That’s it. You can even keep it more simple and say “OK!” Both of these options are magical at mealtimes because they take away all the power. It shows them that you’re not invested in what or how much they eat, which means that they can’t then struggle to get that power back by refusing to eat something, because the power isn’t there to begin with. So, remember to use one of these phrases, then pause, don’t elaborate or say anything more in response, and move on with your meal.
Maybe your toddler will pout, or become upset, and want you to offer them something else because they don’t like that option, but maybe they won’t. Often when you wait, your toddler will start picking at the food, and eventually they may even end up eating it. This happens many, many times. It could take as little as 30 seconds, or sometimes after 10 minutes at the table, they’ll finally go for a bite. This is the magic of letting go of that control, letting them realize that mom or dad really doesn’t care if they eat this or not. AKA – there’s no power struggle to win here.
Step 6: Respond with empathy
Another helpful thing you can try saying if they don’t like the meal is: “That’s ok – not every meal is going to be our favourite.” What you’re doing here is teaching them a lesson that everyone has preferences. Sometimes you’re going to get your favourite, sometimes you’re not. You can also say something like “Oh I think this is daddy’s favourite tonight. We can cook one of your favourites on the weekend.” This is an example of being empathetic. You’re being respectful to their needs, and taking into account their preferences, and you’re also telling them when they can expect to have their favourite meal so they know it isn’t being withheld from them.
Here’s another example of how to phrase this: “I know you love chicken nuggets. I do too! I’m going to put that on the menu for Tuesday, don’t worry. Tonight we’re having this.” Or even simply, “I’m sorry you don’t like the meal today. That’s too bad.” What you’re doing here is being empathetic, and acknowledging their feelings. In many cases, all they want to do is express their feelings and know that they’re being heard, which is completely understandable. But then you’re also moving forward, and setting a boundary so that they can’t step into your role in feeding. Allowing them to make their complaints, and express how they feel about what’s being served, is a necessary part of them processing the information you’re giving them, and that’s ok.
But what do you do if your toddler does pout, or becomes upset, even after you’ve done all the above? You can try saying “Try and find something at the table to eat, so you can fill your belly if you’re hungry,” and leave it. Don’t elaborate any more, just move on. It’s their choice after that. You’ve done your job – remember that. You’ve provided them with the facts, you’ve been empathetic to their needs, and you’ve directed them towards their options – now it’s their turn – so be confident and know you’ve done all you can!
Step 7: Remember, they don’t have to like everything
One more example of something you can say when your toddler tells you they don’t like something is “Oh you don’t like it yet – that’s ok, you may like it soon.” I’ve included the word yet here because this is going back to the fact that eating is a learning process. Just because your toddler doesn’t like something right now, doesn’t mean that they won’t like it forever – this is totally fine! Not everyone has to like every single food – even adults have foods that they don’t like, or avoid eating when it’s offered to them.
However, you can still gently encourage them, and one of my favourite ways to do this with my boys was by teaching them about their taste buds. I taught them that taste buds were the things on our tongue that help us to learn about a food by letting our brains know what it tastes like. And the most important thing I taught them was that taste buds are always changing. As we grow, we get new taste buds, and so the concept here was that maybe the new taste buds would like this food now, even though the old ones didn’t. So every so often I’d remind them of this by saying “Remember how our taste buds change every month? If you want, you can test out to see if your taste buds have changed, and grown, or if they’re still the same.” And then just leave it at that. Let them decide from there if they’d like to test that out or not. Sometimes their curiosity gets the best of them and they decide to give it a try!
Test out some of these phrases at your next meal, and before you know it, this will all be second-nature to you! If you’re looking to get a holistic, step-by-step plan for feeding your toddler so that you can have happier mealtimes with them, check out my Feeding Toddlers online course!