Winning the mealtime wars


Joan Njeri, a mother of a one-and-a-half-year-old girl, gets apprehensive around mealtimes.

“As I put a bib on her, I become tense. She’s a fussy eater; she’ll turn her head away at the sight of the first spoonful or spit out the food. She eats snacks like pieces of fruit or bread well enough, but when it comes to the ‘real’ food, like the main meals, we have to coax her to eat a reasonable amount,” she shares.


Mitchell Nduati has a three-year-old who gets her frustrated at mealtimes as well.

“Sometimes I have to pry his mouth open and force the food in. But I have no control over whether he swallows or not. Sometimes he keeps it in his mouth till he drools from the sides of his mouth.

Then I have to threaten him to swallow, or promise him something if he finishes or trick him into sipping some water so he can swallow. Sometimes I give up and then spend the rest of the time worrying that he’s not eating well.”

Mitchell is particularly worried because her son joins pre-school in January and she had hoped that he would have learnt to feed himself by now.


For Damaris Mueni, a nanny who has taken care of her three-year-old charge since he was born, winning mealtime wars has taken some compromises.

“I let him do what he’s wants to do, so he doesn’t even realise he is eating. There are times when we loiter around the compound, go up and down the stairs, I let him doodle on a book he’s always actively doing something else that’s fun.

When I would demand that he sit still and eat, it didn’t work; either one of us was bound to lose their temper. But when he’s distracted, even though I still have to plead with him to eat, he seems to do so with less fuss.”

According to the Infant & Toddler Forum, on infant and toddler nutrition and development, babies and toddlers develop a mild aversion in response to (especially) new food.

This may be a human survival mechanism to prevent the increasingly mobile toddler from poisoning themselves through eating everything and anything.

Therefore, this would explain why toddlers may reject food on sight without even tasting it, or if the food is familiar but looks slightly different e.g. the biscuit is broken or a different brand, etc.

The good news is that most toddlers outgrow this phase towards the fourth year, especially if the introduction of a range of foods is kept constant and they see those around them consuming the food as well.

Fussy eating can also be explained as a phase that will pass. At around seven months of age, one of children’s main cognitive milestones is that they gain independence; they gradually start to realise that they are their own person, with their own physical abilities, thoughts and emotions.

Between 12 and 24 months, this independence grows as they begin to explore the world around them. By: 36 months, they are beginning to want to do things and get their way (thus the ‘terrible two’s and increased tantrums).

Fussy eating can be more about trying to exert control over what they can or can’t do. The trick is not to exert your authority over them by force-feeding.

How to cope with mealtime tantrums

Don’t get anxious around mealtimes. Be positive.

Never force-feed or start spoon-feeding a child who is eating by himself to make him eat more.

Don’t take away a refused meal and offer another in its place. Let them get accustomed to unfamiliar food, mainly by watching you and others eat it.

Make food look attractive or call it something else. For example, mix up fruits of different colours, serve alphabet-shaped pasta, give a certain vegetable a wacky name, and get sneaky (smart) by hiding nutritious (hated) foods in fancy (liked) foods.

Offer two courses – a main savoury course and a sweet course. This gives more opportunities to get in needed calories without being bored. However, don’t bribe them to eat the main meal with the promise of the sweet one. It will only make them want the main meal less.

Give small portions. When they finish it, praise them and offer some more. Most toddlers eat all they are going to eat within the first 30 minutes. After that, don’t try to persuade, coax or plead with them to eat more.

Turn off the distractions (TV, pets, games, toys)

If they are not old enough, let them help with fixing the meal (sprinkling cheese, mashing potatoes, etc). Offer them finger foods and let them feed themselves.

Do make meals consistent – toddlers thrive on routine. Plan three meals and two or three snacks fitting around their sleep-play pattern. meals.