Throw your hands up in the air if you are a self-proclaimed foodie!

I am…well was.

I used to make fancy meals, try new ethnic cuisines, and take hours to make dinner. My husband and I would sit, eat and relax sipping on wine after a long day. It was simply fabulous.

Fast forward to the present. Now, I strive to get toddler and baby-friendly foods on the table in less than 15 minutes. Yup – move over Rachael Ray this girl doesn’t even have time for 30 minute meals anymore!

While preparing for these meals, I’m usually entertaining my toddler and have a baby on my hip.

Dinner is NOT a time that we unwind and it is NOT stress free.

Listening to Registered Dietitian Jill Castle (who specializes in childhood nutrition and feeding kids) speak at a recent conference, made me realize that what used to be my most favorite part of the day has become my most feared.

Even fellow Registered Dietitians like myself can get stumped when it comes to feeding kiddos! I needed to change my approach, so I caught up with Jill to help me work through my 3 biggest challenges in the kitchen.

1. How can I get my child to sit still during family meals?

I can’t get my 3-year-old to sit at the dinner table for more than 5 minutes.

Jill Castle:

Little ones have little attention spans, but they respond well to direction and limits, especially when they are concrete. One way to “train” a toddler to sit for mealtimes is to use a timer. Place the timer on the table at meal times and set it for the duration your toddler can currently sit successfully — usually 5 or 10 minutes, initially. Let your toddler know that he needs to stay at the table for the meal until the timer goes off. He can stay at the table longer if he is enjoying his meal, but the idea is to give him an end-point so he can manage his behavior at the table. You can increase the timer to 15 minutes and 20 minutes as he gets better at staying for meals. Generally, most toddlers, if hungry when they come to the table, will gobble up their food in the first 10 – 15 minutes.

2. What are some healthy recipes my child will eat?

I end up becoming a short order cook and cook multiple meals a night – and he eats none of them!

family meals

Jill Castle:

The great thing about toddlers is they like to eat food that is simple, plain and identifiable. It’s not unusual for a toddler to reject complicated, mixed dishes, especially if they are new (unfamiliar). I say “keep it simple” and focus on providing a food from each food group. For example, shredded chicken (protein), egg noodles with butter, green beans, sliced strawberries and a glass of milk. When you include the five food groups, you’re hitting the major nutrients and serving a balanced meal. Plus, your toddler can identify each food, while exploring and experiencing new items alongside familiar ones.

If you’re cooking one meal for the whole family, and there are some more complicated items, such as spaghetti and meatballs, deconstruct the meal for your toddler. Serve the noodles, sauce and meatballs separately. Your toddler can dip noodles and meatball into the sauce or eat it with his fingers! Deconstructing entrees or complicated dishes helps the toddler identify, learn and explore different foods, while relieving you from the short-order cook syndrome!

3. How can I make mealtime enjoyable so my children will finish their meals?

I’m constantly asking my toddler to take one more bite – “please eat, Griffin”. I sometimes bribe my child to eat his vegetables (I know this is bad but I can’t seem to break the habit)!

Jill Castle:

Nagging a child to eat is like nagging your husband to take out the trash. The request goes in one ear and out the other. Scientific research informs us that nagging, bribing, and reminding kids to eat may disrupt their ability to learn to like new foods, and interfere with appetite regulation and eating.

I like to remind parents that they only have one job to do when it comes to meals; prepare it and get it on the table at a predictable time and in a “usual” place. After that, sit back, relax, and enjoy the meal yourself. Your child’s job is to eat (or not) what you have provided, a job he is well-equipped to do without pressure or prompting.

When meals are over, close the kitchen. If your child didn’t eat well, remind him of the next scheduled meal or snack, and be sure to show up with a nutritious offering at that time. Children will learn to navigate meals and adjust their eating if you can keep a predictable rhythm and routine to mealtimes and snacks. Again, just like husbands

In addition to answering my questions, we were able to chit-chat about additional strategies to keeping bellies full of nutritious food. Here’s my advice to my fellow parents:

1. Always serve your kiddos milk with dinner.

Even if they don’t eat anything else at least they have a glass of milk with the 9 essential nutrients in it.

Jill Castle:

I raised my own children on a “milk with meals” policy and served water in between meals and snacks. I also made sure to include fruit and bread (or other grain) in every dinner meal plan, which was something my kids enjoyed. If they didn’t like what I was serving (main entrée), they always had a protein source (milk), bread and fruit to eat.

2. Make family meals a routine.

It’s important to establish good eating patterns for my children by having 3 routine meals a day and offering snacks every 2-3 hours1. This also maximizes the nutrition the kids are getting throughout the day.

Jill Castle:

I encourage nutritious snacks to add nutrition to a child’s day, especially with toddlers who can be finicky at meals. Offering healthy snacks provides a safety net of additional nutrients should a child have low meal consumption.

I want to hear the ways you make mealtime easier for your family! Leave me a comment below:


  1. 11 to 36 Months: Feeding Your Toddler. Ellyn Satter Institute. Available at: Accessed on August 14, 2017