How to Stop Your Child’s Mealtime Tantrums

America's Dinner Mom, a New York mother and author of Dinner for Busy Moms, offers strategies on how to beat your child's food tantrums.


How many times has this happened to you? Your 22-month-old refuses to sit in her booster seat at dinner because she wants to sit in a “big girl” chair – and so starts a crying campaign that ends up with supersonic, ear-shattering screams that have you giving in (and dare I add, reaching for a glass of Chardonnay)?

Or this: Your energetic preschoolers race to sit in the seat they both covet at the kitchen table (why that one chair is “special,” you don't know) – and so a fighting match occurs just as you're taking lasagna out of the oven, with one child hitting the other with a spoon, the other pulling the other's hair…while dinner burns?

How about this goody: Your normally agreeable 4-year-old decides she hates the mac and cheese you're serving, even though it's been her favorite food for most of her life – which leads to her throwing said food on floor followed by plates (plastic, luckily!), spoons, forks, and cups…before you turn to your hubby and tell him it's his turn to deal?

Pick a tantrum, any tantrum: They happen. And they happen a LOT at mealtimes. Whether it's your normally adorable 2-year-old refusing to eat former favorite foods or a 5-year-old kicking and screaming because the applesauce is touching the chicken, the bottom line is this: Stay calm, remember who's boss, and consider the root of the matter (Are your kids tired? Testing you? Frustrated? Sad?). And keep your sense of humor about you (a must in terms of all parenting strategies!) – for, I'm sorry to report, it's behavior that endures through the ages (though you'll encounter less foot banging and more harsh stares and the sneaking of cell phones under the table as your kids get older).

As one wise mom (and pediatrician) told me: No child will starve to death out of stubbornness. Toddler appetites are fickle. Some days your darling daughter may eat more than a grown man, and other days she'll eat almost nothing. If your child is hungry, she'll eat, tears or no tears. Remember: You're not a short-order cook meant to bend over backwards to serve your little lovebird anything and everything. He or she eats what you serve. And sits where she is supposed to sit. You are the one (along with your significant other) who teaches your children what “acceptable” behavior is and what it is not. And if they go crazy at the dinner table, they will, and should, be removed – with consequences.

It's not easy, but if you put your foot down, follow through on punishments, and don't give in – the tantrums will abate. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are realistic ways to take tantrums (pardon the pun) off the table.

Stop the tantrum before it starts.

Sometimes kids have tantrums simply because they're hungry. The answer: snacks! Cut up fresh veggies and fruit and put some coloring or other easy activity on the table to tide your child till dinnertime. For those families who are concerned about creating a “sit down at the table together” tradition, don't be so hard on yourself. Eating together every night isn't always realistic; you can find ways to compromise (think sit-down breakfasts).

Evaluate expectations.

What are you expecting your child to do? Young children can sit for short periods, can be encouraged to try everything on their plate, and can learn simple manners, like saying “please” and “thank you.” On the other hand, if you're expecting them to sit for a very long time, go hours without food, and use impeccable manners, then there will be more power struggles.

Remind kids of rules.

Here's one: “If you scream or kick at the table, you will be excused.” Be clear about your own mealtime do's and don'ts. Natalie Caine, who blogs at, advises: “When they tantrum, let them know, 'Since you are having a hard time, I am going to help you. I will count to three and I know you can stop yourself…one, two, three.' If they don't stop, you gently and without words remove them from the table.” When it's over and your child is ready to return, remind him how disappointed you are in his behavior and let him know he will only be allowed to return to the kitchen if he apologizes to everyone at the table, starting with you.

Try a distraction.

Give your child something else to think about by telling a funny story.

Remove the child from the situation.

Wait until she calms down before you talk to her. If your child is in the throes of a tirade, don't try to reason with her. Instead, let her know that as soon as she calms down you're there for her, but until then you can't help. Perhaps you've heard this from your own mom: Trying to talk a child out of a temper tantrum is like trying to get out of a hole with a bulldozer. The more attention you pay to the behavior, the more likely it is that it will not only continue, but it will escalate. Many experts advise, after all else fails, removing yourself from the situation in a calm way. Since tantrums are often for your benefit, once you're away from the table, you might be surprised how quickly they subside.

Be OK with the fact that your child may miss a meal.

Missing a meal (on occasion) because behavior was out of line is FINE, my comrade parents. Don't stress. Your child will not starve. Here's the but: Experts say you should not give in to snacks later, especially unhealthy ones, or you will be reinforcing the idea that your child can have a tantrum, leave the table, and eat snacks later. Instead, tell your child: “Dinner is over. Our next time for eating will be breakfast,” or “Yes, I see you are hungry. That happens when we don't eat enough. Our next time for eating will be….” Or you can offer your child the chance to eat what they left at dinner.

Be firm and don't back down.

A tantrum is a tantrum is a tantrum, whether it's at the grocery store, Grandma's house, or sitting down as a family for dinner. Whatever the punishment (a time-out or the taking away of a privilege), make sure you honor your word. If you cave, you're setting your child up for a lifetime of acting out and expressing his/her feelings in passive and/or aggressive ways. 

Be realistic and age-appropriate.

You know your child best. Any of the above tactics can work, but in the end, it all depends on your kids and the situation. Step back and consider the situation: Is your son/daughter tired? Acting out? Or simply frustrated? If he's tired (it's almost naptime, he isn't feeling well), give him a break. A hug and a treat, play dough after lunch, an extrahelping of Goldfish may resolve this type of tantrum quickly, followed up with a nap or quiet time. If, however, you see your child is testing you, draw a firm line. Following through is critical to get results. If kids are frustrated (they can't cut their own hot dog, are having trouble managing their utensils), then parental assistance usually helps. Not all tantrums are created equal, and you need to cater to your child's temperament and act accordingly.

Learn what to ignore.

Acknowledge and appreciate the times when the meal goes well not by saying, “I am so proud of you for not having a temper tantrum,” but instead saying things such as, “I look forward to eating with you, hearing about your day.” Focus on what you do want and ignore what you don't want. Whatever you pay attention to, you get more of.




Also see: 12 Tips to Encourage Healthy Eating

How to Have Better Dinner Conversations with Your Family