The 8 Stages of Dinnertime with a Toddler

It's hard enough finding a meal your toddler will actually like, finding time to cook said meal, and surviving the day long enough to get it to the table... but actually making it through dinnertime with a toddler is a journey in itself. These are the 8 stages toddlers go through during dinner, every night.

Remember before you had kids, when your dinnertime was a cherished time to unwind with your spouse, catch up on each other’s days, discuss the latest world events, and just be connected?

Or – let’s be real – a time to eat on the couch, watch TV, and play on Facebook next to your spouse while you both zone out after an exhausting day of work?

Dinnertime with a toddler is basically the same as that, if you did all of those things while wrestling a rattlesnake. Not only is it physically exhausting you from its surprising strength for its size, but you’re actually afraid for your life because it could bite you at any moment. But at the same time, you and the snake both gotta eat, so you’re just powering through and trying to get at least half the plate of food into your mouths before one of you completely breaks (and we all know which one of you it’s going to be).

I’ve found that dinnertime usually progresses through 8 stages, fairly predictably, and yet, nothing is predictable when there’s a toddler involved, so as always, just buckle up.

Stage 1: “‘nak ‘nak ‘nak ‘nak ‘nak ‘nak ‘nak ‘nak”

This generally begins 30 minutes to an hour before dinnertime. The toddler decides he/she is positively starving–despite having had a solid snack an hour earlier–and must eat right now. Since they don’t have that whole “rationality” thing down yet, reminding them that “dinner is in just 45 minutes” does no good. You hear the words “‘nak, ‘nak, ‘nak” (toddler speak for “snack”, obvi) repeatedly, until you literally stuff your ears full of Cheerios. This was his plan all along, because now he eats whatever Cheerios get left behind.

Stage 2: “FEED ME NOW, OR SO HELP ME GOD.”

Dinner is {thisclose} to being ready. You’re sautéing and stirring and plating everyone’s food, pre-cutting the toddler’s into non-choke-able pieces, all while he’s screaming bloody murder because he’s finished all the Cheerios, and hasn’t put anything actually edible in his mouth in over 5 minutes.  While you try to will his food to be cool enough to not sear a hole in the roof of his mouth, he goes into full-on tantrum mode, because you are now an actual torturer, just flaunting all that delicious food right in front of his face, but not allowing him to eat it–just for your own sick pleasure, clearly. You know us moms, always looking for a good gag.

Stage 3: “wtf is on my plate.”

This is it! The toddler is hungry, dinner is ready, this should equal a great mealtime experience, right? WRONG. The toddler takes one look at the perfectly balanced, healthy, but tasty meal in front of him, and flips. his. lid. Does he take a bite to taste it? No. Does he perhaps smell it, to test his oh-so-refined palette? No. Does he take even a millisecond to recognize one of the three things on his plate as his all-time-favorite neon yellow mac n’ cheese? No. All he does his scream, and attempt to flip his plate off the high chair, because he is utterly appalled that you would dare try to pass this abomination off as food.

Stage 4: “wait though, maybe just a bite…”

After you’ve been pelted with four or five forkfuls of food, you decide to throw in the towel and give up on him eating anything of substance for this meal. But as you’re removing the plate from his tray, he’ll release a scream so shrill and high-pitched, the neighborhood dogs will all be pawing at your back door. He has now decided he must eat that food, and how dare you deprive him of eating, you horrible mother? As you stare at him in utter confusion, he’ll activate “sweet mode,” turn on the puppy dog eyes, and say “more? more? more?” in the saddest little voice possible.

Stage 5: “Why didn’t you just say it was good, mom?”

This is your one shining moment of glory. Your toddler will suddenly eat ravenously, appreciating all the hard work you put into crafting his meal. Relish it, because it only lasts 5 or 6 bites, tops.

Stage 6: “I’m not even hungry; why are you doing this me?”

After you’ve been teased with a few moments of peace, and you start to foolishly believe this child might actually get a complete meal for once in his life, he’ll pull the rug out from under you. He’ll suddenly throw his fork, and when you try to give it back to him, he’ll lose his shit. He’ll scrunch up his nose and mouth and contort his whole face into expressions you’ve only seen on cartoon characters. Obviously he’s not even hungry. He had four. whole. bites. okay? He’s full! Let it go, mom!

Stage 7: “GET ME OUT OF THIS HIGH CHAIR OR I WILL BURN THIS MOTHER DOWN.”

Oh, the rest of the family is still eating, because you’ve spent the entirety of this meal trying to coax 5 minutes of civilized behavior out of one tiny human? Toddler doesn’t care. He’s done, so everyone’s done. You have approximately 17 seconds to shovel as much food into your mouth as possible before his head spins off into orbit, because he must. play. now.

Stage 8: “‘nak?”

You’ll give in and let that Tasmanian devil run wild while the rest of you finish your meal, cringing with every crash and bang from the other room as your toddler takes the opportunity to swiftly destroy your whole damn house. Finally, everyone will finish, you’ll get the plates put away and the pots and pans soaking, and you’ll be ready for a few fun minutes with your toddler before bedtime. And then… he has the nerve to look at you with those sweet puppy dog eyes and say “…’nak?”

You’ll pretty much explode into flames and leave your husband in charge. He’s a sucker, so he’ll hand the toddler the box of Cheerios and call it a night. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It's hard enough finding a meal your toddler will actually like, finding time to cook said meal, and surviving the day long enough to get it to the table... but actually making it through dinnertime with a toddler is a journey in itself. These are the 8 stages toddlers go through during dinner, every night.

11 Comments

  1. Oh shit I am not the only mum who goes through this?!?! Sadly I can’t even get my fussy-fuss-budget to get a few mouthfuls in. He will have the tiniest bit possible and turn his nose up at it. That’s it. Everyone keeps assuring me that he will not purposely starve himself and he will eat when he is hungry… 2 years later I am still waiting… He is just over 3 now and still turning his nose up to nearly every dinner I make. :S I dread dinner time.

    • You are so not alone! My husband saying “I’m running late, just start dinner without me” is my biggest fear every day. Dinner time is the WORST.

  2. How funny lol my son is almost 2 and he’s gone through many of these stages. How relatable! He acts like he’s down and throws his food, then he wants that one more bite once I take him out of his booster seat. I’m like dude, really…

  3. So true! My little one is constantly trying to get into the fridge or cabinet for snacks!

  4. Haha this is so funny and very true! My toddler is a super picky eater and she drives me nuts at dinner time! It’s so annoying when they are asking for a snack 10 minutes after dinner!

  5. So very true! My youngest has just graduated out of her high chair, so now we can include chasing her around the table, or holding her hand through the entire meal, so she doesn’t jump up from the table. Good times!

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