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. They whine, tantrum and/ore refuse to eat if they don’t like your answer and you’re left thinking…how the heck am I supposed to respond to avoid this and just get them to eat!
Things you might be unsure of how to respond to include…
“Why are we having chicken? I don’t want chicken!”
“What kind of sauce is that?”
“I want crackers!” (and refuses to eat anything else until they get it)
“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 nap time, check that out here.
Step 1: State only the facts and keep commentary non-emotional
Sometimes we start mealtimes off in a way that immediately puts a child’s “spidey senses” in alert mode. We put food on the table and say something like…
“Oooh look at this. This looks so good! Some chicken and peas and rice. Yum yum, want to try?”
Kids hear this and they think…
“Mom/Dad are clearly wanting me to eat this.”
“Here comes the pressure.”
“Yah right, last time she said it was yummy, it was gross.”
And ALL of these thoughts cause pushback and a need to prove and dig deeper into the idea that they don’t want to eat/don’t like a food.
So instead, when serving a meal I want you to start it off by “announcing it” in a factual way. Keep commentary simple, factual and short.
“We’re having chicken and peas and rice.”
And then proceed to enjoy your meal and start a non-food related mealtime conversation.
Your child may ask for more detail or start to question things. This is when you can offer it up some more factual (non-emotional/subjective) descriptions or explanations.
“The marinated in honey and soy sauce.”
You could also use some descriptive words about the ingredients or properties of a food to help prepare them for what it would taste like, without actually asking them to taste it. So for example, you could say:
“Honey is a sweet sauce.”.
“This is rotini pasta, it’s like macaroni, but the shape is different. This is a spiral.”
“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 the pasta example, will help to decrease that fear and let them know what to expect.
But let me hammer it home one more time…remember to keep it all about the facts! Avoid saying “Oh this sauce has honey in it, it’s soooo delicious.” Or, “Honey is sweet, you like sweet things, you’re gonna love it!” Those types of phrases are not strictly factual – they’re subjective. And subjective statements like that, can feel like pressure to your toddler. And pressure means pushback.
On to the next tip…
STEP 2: Tell them “You don’t have to eat it”
It’s bound to happen that 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. 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.”
You can even keep it more simple and say…
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.
Which brings me to my next tip…
Step 3: Know when to stay silent
Silence can be golden!
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.
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. But elaborating too much on an answer, or trying to step in if they don’t respond and “convince them” with more words runs the risk that you’ll start to say things that either turn them off, show how much you desperately want them to eat the food or will feel pressuring to them.
So wait it out (yes even if a tantrum ensues). After they see you’re calm and there for them when they’ve let all their feelings out, your toddler will start picking at the food, and eventually they may even end up eating it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this at the table, gone on with my merry self just enjoying my food and chatting, only to see that 5-10 minutes later, my boys finally came around and start picking up the food and eating it. 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 4: 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.”
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 5: Remind them (and yourself), 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! Notice we’re not rushing to fix this issue (either by trying to convince them they’ll like it, have to eat it or by making them something else). 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! And again – if you wait and not offer any solution to it besides acknowledgment and then silence (see step #3), they often come around on their own and decide on their own accord they will try it!
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! Please know that these tips are one piece of larger puzzle that work when you have other foundational practices in place. If you’re looking to get a holistic, step-by-step plan for feeding your toddler so that you can get the whole picture and have happier, healthier mealtimes with them, check out my Feeding Toddlers online course!
If you’re looking for information on how to handle tantrums, whining and pushback at the table (when using some of these phrases or not), check out this live video I did with @joyful.parents to get insight into how to deal with boundary setting and practical tips to make you feel more confident and enjoy the process of parenting at mealtime!