‘Since our daughter turned one, mealtimes have been disasters. She won’t eat anything without being entertained – sometimes my husband and I feel like clowns in a circus act. What can we do?’
Stop sending in the clowns – and quickly. A toddler who is cajoled into eating by parental aerobatics, juggling, songs and dance, stand-up comedy routines and other variety acts soon comes to expect dinner theatre at every meal and balks when her food isn’t served up with equal servings of entertainment.
Your goal isn’t to ‘get’ your toddler to eat, but to let her eat. In order to avoid future feeding problems, it’s important to allow her appetite to guide her food consumption. She needs to associate eating being hungry (My tummy’s growing, so it must be time for me to eat.’), not with being amused (‘Daddy’s standing on his head again, so it must be time for me to eat’).
If when you bring down the curtain on your mealtime performances your daughter stages a few melodramas of her (in the form of tantrums, table banging, hunger striking) resist the temptation to don your tap shoes and funny hats for ‘one last show.’ Stay calm and nonchalant – as if her eating, or not eating, didn’t matter to you in the least (which it shouldn’t, as long as she’s growing normally). Rest assured that once hunger triumphs over stubbornness, your toddler will eat again , even if the show doesn’t go on.
But just because you’re no longer providing your toddler with table-side performances doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be providing her with companionship while she eats. Sitting down with her (even if you’re not eating your meal, join her for a light snack or a beverage), and interacting with her gives her valuable social experiences while making her meals more interesting. Talk with her about anything but how much (or how little) she’s eating: About the trip to the park you took this morning, or the play date that’s schedule for this afternoon, or the flowers you saw coming up in the garden. Even if the interactions initially more like a monologue, it will transmit the message that conversations, not circus acts, are the appropriate accompaniments to a meal.
Putting more ‘fun’ in the food you serve your toddler can also satisfy her appetite for entertainment.