Q&A: how long to wait for toddler to finish dinner

Ally writes:

"I have a question about toddlers and mealtime. My philosophy is to put nutritious food in front of my 23-month-old and let him have at it. Throughout the day I may ask him to eat a bite here and there usually just to try something, not as a bargaining tool, but I usually don't worry about him eating a full meal at a sitting, except at dinnertime because I don't want him to go to bed hungry or not quite full and be up all night wanting to nurse because of it. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but given our history and the fact that he now sleeps through at least 75% of the time now the thought of messing that up because I don't want to back down over green beans or something seems silly. The problem is, I never know if he's just being, well, almost 2 (we had a 10-minute screaming fit last night because he wanted "deeda!" and then he abruptly stopped with the hollering and scarfed down his brown rice, chicken, and bok choy stir fry), or if he is actually going to refuse his beloved noodles and sausage and my only hope of a peaceful night is to make 3(!) pieces of peanut butter toast (tonight's drama).

How long is a reasonable amount of time to sit around and wait for him to decide if he wants to eat or not? I have a couple of quick and easy standbys in case he's decided he HATES what we're eating tonight and making a backup dinner doesn't bother me, it's the fact that dinner can take up to an hour because of the farting around, which leaves us with about 10 minutes to relax before it's time to get ready for bed. So I don't know if I should just have a book on hand to sit there while he picks, thereby giving him space to make his own choices, or if I should pick an amount of time (20 minute maybe?) and just make the dang toast and move on.

This seems like a really silly thing to be writing about. I have no problems setting limits and boundaries in any other situation. I'm just really hyper about the food thing and my wanting to NOT be hyper is making me more hyper."

Yes. Exactly. It is a silly thing to worry about, but you pretty much do have to worry about it because it has a direct bearing on how well he (and you!) sleeps.

Once he's 3, and has been sleeping through the night consistently for a year, he can eat with you and when the meal is over it's over. Most of the parents we know who have kids over 3 have the same policy we do with our older son (who's 4.5): He has to try a bite of whatever we're having, but if he doesn't like it he can have the one alternative meal that's easy to make and somewhat nutritious (in our house it's a peanut butter and honey sandwich). It's a pretty stress-free approach for everyone, and it turns it into a family meal instead of a battle of wills.

But that just doesn't work as well with a 2-year-old. At that age they're still using eating as the major way to exert some control over their lives (older kids have more control over other things, so food becomes less of a control game) so even if they want to eat it they sometimes don't. Plus, they don't understand that "Just try one bite!" means one bite and not the whole eggplant, so they aren't always able to try new things without a lot of trauma to both of you.

So essentially you're stuck between two conflicting goals at dinnertime. On the one hand you want to cut off mealtime at a certain point to simplify things for yourself and set up some structures and standards. On the other hand, you want to stuff your boy like a turkey to get him to sleep all night, which is also a noble goal.

I think you're on the right track with the toast as the only backup option, since otherwise you can drive yourself nuts preparing lots of alternative meals. It seems like a huge part of your frustration is not knowing if he'll end up eating your (exceedingly healthy-sounding) regular meal or not. Maybe you want to start practicing the "one-bite" rule now, and try to get him to verbalize whether he's going to eat the regular meal or not. If you could think of it all as practice for him in making decisions and verbalizing them, instead of just being a pain in the ass, it might be easier on you emotionally. You can reward him verbally for trying the food and then for deciding whether he's going to eat it or not, while trying not to attach any expectation that he'll be able to make that decision. If he hasn't decided himself within in a few minutes whether he'll eat the family meal or not, just make the decision for him. It won't hurt him to eat peanut butter toast for dinner for a week or two, and eventually he may start to make his own decision just for the variety of it.

Does anyone else have any suggestions? The goal, remember, is to get the kid full at the table with a minimum of messing around. It doesn't have to be a long-term strategy, since Ally just has to hang in there until he's reliably sleeping through the night and isn't so wishy-washy about eating dinner.