dinner table tricks: how to combat a hangry toddler

a spread of food for everyone to prepare their own wrap at the table: independence is ollergy's first dinner table trick

dinner table tricks: how to combat a hangry toddler

Food allergies make meal preparation complicated. Throw in a picky eater and I know it can be really stressful and overwhelming to get dinner in everyone’s belly. I will preface this post with the admission that Ollie is, for the most part, a great eater. He always eats at least some of what we give him and honestly likes more vegetables than I do. Even so, we have our moments. I’ve found two ways to help the dinner process so at least some of the food we spend hours preparing (and far too much on) actually makes it to our toddler’s mouth. Here are my two favorite dinner table tricks. 

gonna do it my own self

We are deep in the trenches of the independence phase. Ollie must do everything by himself, until he needs help, at which point he must scream at you because why would you possibly consider abandoning him for the trip to the bathroom that he two seconds earlier declared he didn’t need help for. Who’s with me here? One of our biggest struggles is simply keeping Ollie at the table long enough to eat. He wants to do everything himself and therefore when a plate of food is placed in front of him, some of the fun is already gone. We figured out pretty early on that cooking with him increases our chances of him trying something tenfold (the child basically only eats salad if he’s able to use the lettuce spinner) but it took us a lot longer to figure out how successful dinner is if he gathers his own food at the table. The first of the two dinner table tricks is to let your child prepare their own meal at the table.

a spread of mexican food ready for everyone to make their own wrap

I recently read that some families call this a “make your own adventure” dinner. Given Ollie’s love of adventures in the woods, I’m sure if we start using this name it’ll sell dinner even more! I’ll admit this is quite similar to family-style meals, which I know is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s helped us immensely. Whenever possible, we let Ollie assemble his own dinner at the table. This works well with meals that require multiple parts; tacos, lettuce boats, soup with toppings, and wraps are some of our favorites. Our dinner table ends up covered in bowls of various food items and we each go to town crafting our own meal.

let it go

This also works well if I actually relax and let go at the dinner table. Easier said than done for me. As one who likes order and organization, parenting is often an exercise in letting go. I’m always trying to find the balance between maintaining the order I crave and letting a kid be a kid. At the dinner table, it’s a work in progress for all of us. We’ve had fun experiences of food or utensil throwing; there’s no freedom there and I’m thankful the phase didn’t last long. I’m working on accepting more of the mess in-between. Our table isn’t pretty after taco night but Ollie is always stuffed with chicken, avocado, peppers, and pico. That is a win. I try to always remind myself of that as pico drops in five places on its way to Ollie’s plate. He’s more calm and willing to eat if not being pestered, which is understandable and fair. When given more independence, he’s also accepting of our desires to not have utensils or food fly anywhere. Wins for everyone!

toddler independence is one of our dinner table tricks to keep him happy and fed, like here where he prepared his own wrap

snacks, always.

This is really a pre-dinner activity but it is a game changer for the actual meal which is why it is the latter of my two dinner table tricks. If your schedule is like ours, and dinner sometimes isn’t ready to go until after 6 PM, make sure to offer snacks. Often times, Ollie asks for a snack on the ride home. At first, I said no to this. After a few rounds of a hangry toddler who could not even get himself off from the floor at home, I learned just how key food is in helping our evening. I get it. I wish it was socially acceptable for adults to lay on the floor and whine that they “just can’t get up” when hungry. Now, if Ollie asks for a snack on the way home, I search through the lunchbox and offer the healthiest thing I can find. If I had my life really together, I’d pack an extra snack in my own lunchbox each morning so we’re guaranteed a healthy pickup snack. For now, I call it a win if we all leave in the morning with food. My husband is often the food packer and has on more the one occasion ran out the door without breakfast for himself. We’re a work in progress. 

more snacks, always.

Pre-dinner snacks are just as important at home. Whenever we have meals that require more prep time, I make sure there are veggies and guac out at Ollie’s tower. This way, he can come and go as he pleases as we prepare dinner. Often times, he’s helping us cook so he’s taste testing and snacking that way. If it’s a night where he isn’t interested in cooking, having snacks out at the tower will sometimes help with the whines. He’s an incredibly good-natured kid most of the time, he is just HANGRY. So very hangry. For me, the guilt of pre-dinner snacks is erased when I know it’s a healthy snack. Even if it’s not vegetables, we have yet to approve his request for a bag of chocolate chips before dinner, but sometimes will offer crackers or a rice roller in a pinch. In any case, I always keep snacks in my bag of dinner table tricks. I know without them, Ollie is going to be too hungry to sit, when we finally make it to the table.

Do you have any favorite pre-dinner snacks? Other dinner table tricks to keep everyone happy and fed? Do tell, please!