The Number One Most Overlooked Influence on Toddler Meal Times

Toddler meal times can be challenging even for the best of us. From picky eating to tantrums and food throwing there are many hurdles to jump over before you actually get to the eating part. 


However, there is one thing that plays a major part in the success of toddler meal times that we seem to always forget about. 


The number one most overlooked influence on toddler mealtimes? 


Countless studies link the parent- toddler relationship dynamic at meal times as the primary influence on meal times

Now I’m not saying that your child’s or your emotions necessarily CAUSE picky eating. 

What I am saying is that our emotions govern how we act and until we work through our and our toddlers emotions around food, it’s going to be really hard to get to a place of having happy healthy meal times

So who’s and what emotions are we talking about when it comes to toddler mealtimes? 

Your toddlers emotions and how the impact mealtimes: 

We all know that toddlers want to feel independent and powerful which presents many challenges in day to day life. Often what they most want to do, they are still not skilled enough to master by themselves. 

Because you are bigger (and wiser) you are able to control almost everything your toddler does. You can pick them up if they try to run into the road, take the toy away if they are breaking it, buckle them in when they don’t want to be in the car seat. 

Obviously many (Most) of these things are for your toddlers safely and a way to guide them towards the natural rules of life. 

Nevertheless, we need to sometimes take a step back and look at the experience of always being guided through our toddlers eyes

Sometimes, our well meaning (and many times necessary) guiding can feel to a toddler like they have no independence which is the very thing that their young brain is thirsty for.

What do toddlers have control over?

What is something that your child has complete control over? That you cannot do for them? 

  • Eating 
  • Toileting

I’ve seen it time and time again in therapy that when a child is feeling disempowered or that they are unable to make choices for themselves they start to not cooperate with toileting and eating because those are the things they do have complete control over. 

I just want to reiterate that this isn’t necessarily a CAUSE for picky eating but rather an influence on toddler meal times for picky and non-picky eaters. 

It’s one of the reasons that almost all toddlers have some food refusal (even if it’s just for a few minutes)- they are trying to assert their power. 

Note: While this IS relevant for all toddlers, toddlers with an underlying cause for picky eating also have genuine, legit reasons for not eating variety and eating can be a scary thing for them. 

While it may feel challenging for us…No actually let’s be real- a toddler trying to assert their independence can near flatten any of us, it is developmentally appropriate and good for them. They are learning that they are their own person. A small step towards them becoming a responsible and secure individual.

While it may feel challenging for us…No actually let’s be real- a toddler trying to assert their independence can near flatten any of us, it is developmentally appropriate and good for them. They are learning that they are their own person. A small step towards them becoming a responsible and secure individual. 

Should we give in to toddler mealtime demands? 

Does this mean we should give in to all our toddlers demands around mealtimes? 


Remember our goal is happy, healthy toddler meal times not short order cooking or being controlled by a small tyrant.

What we can do is take steps toward empowering our toddler and giving them a measure of independence within a firm boundary. 

Empowering toddlers for easier meal times 

Be intentional about offering choices: 

By offering choices you give your toddler the feeling of power and ownership. This is especially relevant for toddlers under 2 years old and those with some delays in speech because they cannot yet communicate what they want. 

  1. This means: would you like the blue plate or the red plate 

            This does not mean: Okay, you don’t want the meal I cooked, what would you like for dinner?

2. This means: Would you like the sauce on top of your pasta or on the side? Or on a side plate (especially relevant for sensory picky eaters)

This does not mean: I’m so sorry I made sauce with this pasta, can I make you something else? 

3. This means: Would you like to sit on the blue cushion or the yellow cushion? 

This does not mean: Do you want to sit at the table or on the couch in front of the TV? 


Realistic expectations on cleanliness and manners during meals

I know we all want our kids to eat without needing to clean the entire kitchen and have to bath them afterwards but unfortunately some of our expectations don’t match what is developmentally needed at each age and stage. 

This study pointed out that the parent-child relationship dynamic during meal times has a very big impact on what children eat. And that pressure on children to comply with table manners that were not age appropriate actually lead to picky eating.

Does this mean we will always allow our kids to eat like little cavemen? No, definitely not. 

What it means is that as they naturally develop fine motor, sensory and oral motor (mouth movement) skills they do start to mimic the table manners that we model. Once they are actually able to eat with a spoon, drink without spilling, not have food on their face you can start teaching them about table manners and cleanliness.  


Remember that they are LEARNING here

Let’s change our mindset from our toddler needing to comply with our vision for clean and tidy meals to our toddlers learning critical developmental skills during mealtimes. 

Think about it- your 2 year old is still pretty new to eating. They are still learning what food feels like, how to chew different textures, how to swallow different amounts and how to feed themselves. 

This phase of eating like a caveman is actually laying the foundations for your toddler to be able to tolerate (and even enjoy) a wide variety of healthy foods. 


No begging, bribing or pleading 

Studies have shown that coaxing, bribing, begging, rewarding and punishing children around mealtimes actually aggravates picky eating. It makes sense when considering that our toddler is trying to assert their independence.

  1. Try this: Here is your meal with a side of fruit 

Not this: If you finish all your food I’ll give you dessert

2. Try this: Is your tummy full? Have you eaten enough? 

  Not this: Please just have one more spoon

3. Try this: Here is your pasta and carrots

Not this: If you don’t eat the carrots there’s no pasta and you go to bed hungry


Lighten the mood

When toddlers are laughing and feeling connected to their parents they are more likely to feel secure and focus on the task of eating instead of the act of opposing. 

Maybe it’s finding the monkeys inside the broccoli tree 

Or exaggerated chewing and yummy sounds 

Invite your toddler to engage with you as they eat and enjoy their food. 

food for toddler meal times

Your Emotions around Toddler Meal Times: 

How are my emotions and feelings related to getting my toddler to eat you ask? 

Again, research shows the relationship dynamic between parent and toddler to be a huge influence on the success of meal times and picky eating. 

Here are a few ways we, often unknowingly make how much or how well our toddlers eat as a measuring stick for our success as mothers:  

Before we became moms we all had a list in our heads: the list of all the things “My child will never do” 

A whole bunch of these are about food

  • My child will never throw a tantrum in the grocery store for sweets
  • I will never allow my child to eat ketchup at every meal 
  • My toddler will always stay seated at the table during mealtimes
  • Of course, my child will eat vegetables 

Most of us have a few hang ups about food:

maybe our own sensory stuff, maybe we struggle with our own relationship with food. 

Without realising it we can put very black and white labels on food as well as have a very rigid picture of what healthy eating looks like which makes every meal or snack either a pass or fail. 

Feeding is one of the first things we do as a mom.

It’s very central to our feelings about ourselves as moms. Unknowlighly, we as mums can internalise picky eating as meaning that we are failing to provide for our kids and are somehow inadequate as mothers. Even when it’s a normal developmental phase for toddlers. 

How our feelings impact toddler meal times:  

The thing is that our underlying feelings and beliefs around food and how our toddler’s picky eating reflects our abilities as moms is often untrue and paints how we react during mealtimes.

I have found for myself and for the many mothers I have worked with around toddler meal times and picky eating that until we realise what emotions or false beliefs we have about picky eating, we can’t move forward. 

In fact, we end up creating a cycle of self-sabotaging the strategies we have put in place during meal times because of our own fears or anxieties. 

  • “Unless my toddler eats vegetables, they are unhealthy so he needs to finish the vegetables or else go to bed hungry”
  • “My toddler only ate a few bites of her dinner, I better just feed her the last bit while she’s distracted by TV or she may starve”
  • “If I let my toddler play with their food or eat with their hands it means I’m not teaching them manners”
  • “My toddler hates the way I cook, that’s why they don’t eat enough. It’s my fault. I’ll get them pre-made food instead”

We try to control our toddlers eating because if they don’t eat the way we think they should, what does that say about us? 

health dynamic toddler meal time infographic
parent toddler meal time dynamic infographic

What does a healthy toddler parent dynamic at meal times look like? 

  • Parent choosing what to serve

             Toddler choosing what to eat 

  • Parent choosing the amount to serve

             Toddler choosing the amount to eat 

  • Parent supporting the toddler to remain seated (for realistic amount of time)  during meal times through encouragement, properly supported chair and routine 

             Toddler choosing how much they eat while sitting 

  • Parent modeling eating with correct table manners 

            Toddler eating in a way that best fits their development 

My child really is a picky eater… Aren’t my concerns valid? 

I am in NO WAY trying to minimise valid parental concern for real picky eaters.  

The opposite! I’m saying that picky eating needs to be APPROPRIATELY addressed. It is a very legitimate concern and absolutely our role as parents address the reasons for true picky eating as well as to train our kids in healthy eating

However, our actions need to be focussed on CORRECTLY supporting our toddlers eating. Not on attempting to control or pressurise your toddler to eat 

How can I stop putting  pressure on my toddler during meal times? 

Stopping the habits of begging, bribing, pleading and punishing your toddler at meal times is in no way easy. 

It requires that we take a closer look at ourselves before we can properly support our toddlers. 

Are you ready and willing to look into your own food hang-ups? Why it eats at you if your toddler doesn’t finish their food? The reason for you not offering your toddler variety? 

Inside the ACTION GUIDE TO PICKY EATING  free 4 week email course you will find a to-the-point reflection guide to help you get started. This reflection guide is the first step towards understanding toddler meal time emotions and moving forward to healthy, happy family eating. 

Inside the course we also 

  • Delve deep into whether your toddler really is a picky eater
  • Explore real reasons for picky eating with tons of tips, activities and printables you can do at home 
  • Learn how to introduce new foods to your toddler so that they will actually eat them

I hope to see you in the course and that you have a little more insight into what’s happening around each of our tables.