No human can hold their ground quite like a toddler, can they? Never fear – we’ll share 3 Tips to Avoid Power Struggles at Mealtimes with your toddler.

Graphic for post – avoid meal time, power, struggles, three tips for toddlers and kids. Images of a toddler and a white shirt, refusing to eat her meal.

Medically reviewed and cowritten by Lauren Braaten, Pediatric Occupational Therapist (OT).

Avoiding Mealtime Power Struggles with Toddlers

Let’s set the stage. You’ve just sat down to eat dinner and your toddler starts in with “NO! I don’t want that.” You counter with a rebuttal, which only intensifies your toddler’s protests of “no’s”. Predictably the water works start to turn on, your toddler attempts their Houdini escape from their chair, and you’re exasperated.

So how do you de-escalate this? Or better yet, how can you decrease the chances of a power struggle starting from the beginning? Below we’ll share our 3 favorite tips for avoiding mealtime power struggles with toddlers. (P.S. – they work best when used in combination!)

Tips to Avoid Mealtime Struggles

1. Tell them, “That’s okay. If you’re not ready to eat it yet, you don’t have to.”

I know, you’re thinking, that’s it? Hold on, let’s break this down a bit.

First of all, we’re countering their initial protest with calm, instead of a battle. I used to respond with a predictable “BUT it’s so yummy!” or “BUT it’s good for your eyes/tummy/muscles/etc!” or “BUT you ate it last week!” The common theme here is that I would always counter with BUT, which feels argumentative from the start. And we all know that toddler brains aren’t usually in a place to rationalize.

Second, we also throw in a quiet statement of hope “If you’re not ready to eat it yet…” Notice I’m not saying, “You don’t have to eat it ever, ” I’m reminding them that it seems like they’re not ready yet. “Yet” implies that they do hold the capacity to learn to like new foods.

2. Next say, “You can eat __________ instead.” (a preferred, familiar food that’s already on their plate).

Let’s break this one down a bit too.

This requires a little prep work on your end. Hopefully you’ve already gotten into the habit of serving at least one preferred or familiar food at every meal. This could be a favorite fruit, a veggie they’ve had a lot of success with eating, or a few crackers. When your toddler sees at least one food on their plate that feels safe, they are more likely to start eating something. And eating often begets eating – meaning once they’ve had a few bites of their familiar food, they might start to poke or nibble at another food.

Redirecting their attention back to something familiar can also increase the time that they’ll stay at the table. When toddlers stay at the table longer, the chances that they interact with a new food, in some way, increases.

By combining #1 and #2 phrases together, you give your toddler a sense of control. Feeling like they have the ability to make a choice about what goes into their mouths can be very empowering.

3. Make sure your toddler is actually coming to the table hungry.

Although not a phrase, this one is a reminder to set boundaries on snacking and another often overlooked area – beverages.

If your toddler is consistently coming to the table not wanting to eat, you may need to look at your schedule for meals and snacks and determine if your child is actually hungry and interested in eating at meals.

You might find that you’re accidently allowing the end of one meal to blend too closely into the next snack. Or maybe you forgot that your toddler drank 12 ounces of milk in their sippy cup in the car. And then you came home and offered lunch less than an hour later.

These things reduce a toddler’s hunger for foods at the table and can definitely contribute to power struggles. A toddler who is not interested in food (especially a new food) will most likely start to protest about being encouraged to eat.

An ideal schedule for toddlers includes 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily, with about 2-3 hours in-between each eating opportunity. It’s best to offer only water in-between meals. Here’s a typical eating schedule for a toddler:

7am breakfast

9:30 snack

12:00 lunch

3:00 snack

5:30 dinner

7:30 snack (optional)

Frequently Asked Questions

What if after telling them, “It’s okay if you’re not ready to eat it” and offering a preferred food, they STILL refuse to eat?

Sometimes the best course of action is to redirect the conversation for a bit and simply not talk about food at all. Just focus on the conversation as a family, keep things positive, and enjoy family time together, as best as you can.

This would also be a good time to look more closely at your toddler’s eating schedule and whether they are coming to the table hungry enough. Also remember that it’s normal for toddlers to eat quite a bit at one meal, and then not eat much for the next meal or snack.

Should I encourage my toddler to stay at the table if they refuse to eat?

By encouraging your toddler to stay at the table at least a short amount of time, this can often lead to them exploring the foods in front of them. It’s also a nice way to model eating new foods and good eating habits in general, when they see you eating at the table.  

What if I serve a meal they’ve always eaten, but now they don’t want it and are asking for a snack?

Holding boundaries here can be helpful. If the snack they’re asking for wasn’t on the menu to begin with, then you can empathize that they may want something different, but this is what’s available right now. This might look like, “I hear you. You wanted a cheese stick. We’re having chicken and rice for lunch now. You can have a cheese stick for snack later today.”

Is it okay for toddlers to skip a meal completely?

It’s actually developmentally appropriate for toddlers to eat a lot at one meal and then eat very little or almost nothing at other meals. A toddler’s appetite can fluctuate quite a bit, depending on whether they’re recovering from/coming down with an illness, overly tired, or simply distracted by learning about other things in their world.

Try not to get too stressed about your toddler skipping a meal here or there. Make sure to continue to offer regularly scheduled times for meals and snacks, so that your toddler knows roughly when the next eating opportunity will be.

Tips & Tricks

  • Toddlers do best when given a 5-10 minute heads up or warning before mealtimes, so that they know ahead of time that playtime is ending soon.
  • Let your toddler feed themselves and eat at their own pace.
  • Offer a variety of foods at meals, and in manageable amounts.
  • Set up good eating habits early on, including no toys at the table and no eating in front of screens.
  • Help your toddler feel more comfortable around new foods by comparing them to foods they already know. For example, “These are crescent rolls. They’re like bread but in a different shape.”
  • Offer choices for some other aspects of the meal they can control. For example, let your toddler pick between two colors of bowls to eat from.