Whether it's throwing food or refusing old favorites, toddlers can definitely test your patience at the dinnertable. Here are some workarounds.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
November 30, 2018
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Frustrated Toddler Eating Bowl of Cereal
Credit: Leonid Ikan/Shutterstock

Toddlers are adorable: The chubby thighs! The adorably mispronounced words! But they're also maddening: The tantrums! The demands for the blue cup and absolutely not the red cup! Feeding kids can be stressful enough, but toddlers bring their own set of issues to the table. Here are five of the most common frustrations and some workarounds:

Frustration: My toddler won't sit at the table!

Toddlers are busy people, and sitting at the table can feel boring in comparison to the fun stuff they'd rather be doing--so don't expect a long, leisurely meals together. But be sure your child is actually hungry. Toddlers are notorious nibblers, so keep snacks at least 1.5 hours away from meals so she's worked up an appetite. Also, is her seat comfortable and appropriate? Would she benefit from a booster with a seatbelt? Remind her frequently that sitting at the table is what the family does at mealtime, but keep your expectations low at first (5-10 minutes) and work up from there.

Frustration: My toddler wants the same thing to eat every day!

"Food jags", when kids want the same foods meal after meal after meal, are very common at this age. It's important for your child to experience a wide variety of foods so he doesn't fall into a cycle of only eating a handful of favorites like grilled cheese or pasta. Remind your child that you have different foods on different days and that you'll be having his favorite dinner soon (pick a specific day and show him on the calendar if that helps). For particularly reluctant kids, tweak his favorites so he's still trying new things: Use a different bread for his PBJ, a new pasta shape, or a different kind of cheese on his sandwich. If it's a favorite fruit or veggie, go ahead and serve it frequently, paired with other choices, at meal and snack time.

Frustration: My toddler won't eat foods she used to love!

This is an especially frustrating facet of picky eating, which rears its head during the toddler years: refusing not only new foods but also foods that were previously liked and eaten. If you've said "But you LOVE (fill in the blank)" a dozen times this week, you know this all too well! Toddlers have brand new independent streaks--and they also enjoy the power they wield by saying "no". The trick is to keep calm and stay the course. Continue to offer those foods, along with other options. If they protest, offer the simple reassurance "You don't have to eat it" which takes away any pressure or drama.

Frustration: My toddler devoured a ton of food yesterday, but barely ate anything today!

It's normal for toddlers' appetites to be a little erratic. After tremendous development during infancy, your child's growth has slowed down—and that means a lower appetite. She may have little growth spurts along the way that trigger appetite surges. But in general, it's best to trust your child's instinct on what she needs rather than dictate a certain number of bites or, even worse, demand she clean her plate. That interferes with your child's ability to understand her hunger and fullness cues and could set her up for overeating. (An obvious exception: If your child's appetite is low and she's losing weight or not growing properly, constult your pediatrician for help.)

Frustration: My toddler throws food!

Babies throw food to explore their world and figure out cause and effect. Toddlers throw food for different reasons—most often, to get a rise out of mom or dad or get attention. Your child is old enough to understand consequences, so be clear and calm. When he throws food, tell him, "We don't throw food" and remove the food he's thrown (instead of returning it to his tray, which can quickly become a game). If he continues, tell him "Looks like you're done eating" and bring him down from his chair. While he's still learning, put smaller amounts of food on his plate or tray, making sure he knows there's more if he finishes that portion.

Most of all, understand that these feeding frustrations are part of toddlerhood, a phase that can feel long day-to-day but does eventually end!

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.