Are you dealing with a toddler tyrant who comes out at mealtimes? I have been there and I totally get it, so don't feel alone! As parents, we want to make sure our child eats but what often results is a mess of negotiating, refusing to eat and tantrums (usually just from the kids). Sometimes we need to step back and see what the experts recommend to make mealtimes more enjoyable for all parties involved.

The concept of Division of Responsibility in Feeding is a philosophy that pediatric registered dietician Sarah Remmer explores in her co-authored book, Food to Grow On, The Ultimate Guide to Childhood Nutrition From Pregnancy to Packed Lunches. “It’s a theory, introduced by nutrition expert, Ellyn Satter, that divides the food roles between parents and kids, so that parents are responsible for the what, when, and where, and kids for the if and how much,” says Sarah. “Reminding kids about the structure, showing compassion, and redirecting them when necessary, are long-term feeding tactics that help children understand the boundaries and their own body’s hunger cues.”

This transition may not be an easy one, and while consistency is necessary, so is an optimistic and realistic mindset. Meals won’t always take place at home on a peaceful Sunday morning when everyone is calm and rested. A lot of times they will be at a restaurant under the microscope of every other patron or at the end of a long day when everyone is cranky and ready for bed. These are the times when taking the focus away from the food itself and placing it on the experience of enjoying time together will be key. Some flexibility, to a degree, should also be expected.

That might sound confusing. Adhere to the roles, set boundaries, stay consistent, AND be flexible—wait, what? Yes, you read correctly. Adhere to the roles: stay in your lane. Set boundaries: you’re not a short-order cook. Stay consistent: stick to the plan. Be flexible: we’re talking about toddlers, after all.

Flexibility doesn’t mean going back to letting the kids run the show. What it does mean is that parents will need to put themselves in the child’s place for a moment. Try recalling the last time you were forced to eat a food you didn’t like or eat when you weren’t hungry. It’s probably been a while. That’s because adults usually aren’t forced to eat.

As parents, we sometimes force our children to eat because we associate being a good parent with making sure our children are healthy. If you’ve tried this well-intentioned approach like me, remember that it’s not a failure on your part. The fact that you care about the health of your child is a great thing. Congratulations, you’re winning at parenting! But now that we know what does not work, there are ways to be constructively flexible.

LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD, who specializes in child nutrition, offers this refreshing piece of advice to her clients who are struggling with unadventurous eaters: “Categorize foods from red light to green light—green light foods being those you know your child likes. Try to have one from each category on their plate at every meal and know that if they’re willing to try even one bite of the red light food, that’s a success!” She echoes the Division in Responsibility concept when saying, “The parent decides what foods are offered, but toddlers decide how much of those foods they will eat, and that’s because they are much more in tune with their appetite than we are.”

When children are given some (guided) autonomy at mealtime, it gives them a sense of independence and removes the pressure that often increases negative food-related behaviors, while simultaneously allowing parents to take some of the stress off of themselves, leading to a more pleasurable experience for all.

So, if you’re struggling with a toddler who is a picky eater, throws tantrums, or is in the “never hungry at mealtime but wants a snack every five minutes” phase that my toddler recently moved away from, take the advice of pediatric nutrition experts and know your role, remain positive, and be flexible when feeding to stop from spiraling down the mealtime pitfall rabbit hole.

—Candace Nagy

Mother. Writer. Lover of history and nature. Read more by Candace here.