Learning Motherhood Sensory Toddler Meals

Toddler Won’t Eat Without TV or iPad? Here’s How We Cut Out Screen Time During Meals

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Our two year old son used to eat only while watching cartoons on the iPad, TV, or the phone. We tolerated this for a long time, but then decided to cut out screen time during meals cold turkey. It worked! But with some caveats. Here’s how we did it, why it worked, and what we tried first (unsuccessfully).

cutting out screen time during meals graphic

If you’re new here, this blog is about my toddler son who’s had a lot of issues with eating. He has had issues with gagging while eating, hating his high chair, food throwing, and just general toddler pickiness that resulted him in not eating and losing weight. Some of this probably sounds familiar to you, my son is not a special snowflake.

When our son was around 10 months old, we realized that we can put on Elmo on YouTube which would keep him sitting in his high chair long enough to eat (I am surprised it took us this long!). He would be entertained and wouldn’t throw food or cry to get out of his high chair, plus the screen provided enough distraction that he was willing to actually eat food without getting stressed out over it.

We figured, we’ll just use the iPad or TV during meals only when we really need him to eat, and just for a month or two until he learns to eat better. He was really underweight at that age, and we just needed him to eat

Besides, we started putting on Sesame Street, Elmo’s World, and other educational shows that would start teaching him colors, numbers, letters. That’s not so bad, right? At least that’s what we told ourselves.

Soon our son was totally dependent on watching the iPad while eating and started asking for Elmo as soon as he sat down in the high chair. He refused to eat without it and would get really upset. We had created our very own Sesame Street monster. We knew we had to do something about it.

Why toddlers shouldn’t watch TV while eating

There were many reasons we wanted to get our kid to eat without screen time:

  1. We wanted him to learn to eat on his own. We wanted him to learn to feed himself, to know how to tell when he is full, and to actually pay attention to his food. These are all things that he couldn’t do while he was distracted with TV.
  2. We wanted to have family dinners together without Elmo (Sorry furry little red monster! You’re cute, but not welcome during dinner.)
  3. We didn’t want him to need to watch something while eating.
  4. It was getting out of control: if our hand blocked the screen for even a second, my son would throw a fit. He was an addict. A tiny adorable baby addict, but an addict.
  5. We wanted to limit screen time in our house. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for babies under 18 months, and up to only 1 hour of screen time per day for toddlers older than 2 years. (Source) Our son was not even 1 and was watching at least an hour of cartoons per day because of how long his meals took. We knew we wanted to try to change this.

Now please note, we are not complete sticklers for rules. Once in a while we do put on TV for my son (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood! Who else loves Mr Rogers??) when we need him to sit still for whatever reason. I don’t judge anyone for doing that. But we figured we should at least cut down on screen time during meals to reduce the amount of TV he watches.

If you’re struggling getting your child to eat because of sensory or texture issues, check out 52 weeks of Sensory. It’s a year-long list of sensory activities I created with a focus on picky eaters. Join me for lots of fun sensory play! Learn more.

How to get a toddler to eat without the iPad:

There are a few approaches you can take to stop your toddler from watching TV or the iPad while eating:

1. Do nothing

Do nothing and hope they grow out of it in a few years when they learn to enjoy food and learn to eat faster, so meal times are not a chore. In the meantime, of course, you can model good behavior by not watching TV on the big screen during family dinners and not being on the phone or iPad yourself while eating.

The downside to this is that, well, you’re not really cutting out screen time. And what if it’s 5 years down the road and nothing has changed?

By the way, I totally get doing nothing. I am not judging. Feeding kids is hard and can be very stressful, especially if they have any picky eating issues or are underweight. We did nothing for almost a year because we just needed our son to gain a little weight and get out from being <1% on the growth chart.

2. Gradually reduce screen time during meals.

You can do this by starting meals without the iPad/tablet and prolonging the amount of screen-free time before you have to whip out the cartoons.

The downside to this is that your kid knows that the iPad is coming, so they will just keep asking for it, or they might even have a complete meltdown.

We tried this approach a few times. We’ve had a few nice meals where my son ate most of his food before realizing that he can ask for the iPad. But overall, this approach didn’t work for us.

3. Quit screen time cold turkey.

This is the approach that finally worked for us. But it wasn’t so simple. We had to wait until our son was almost two years old, started eating better, and was old enough to understand some things.

When he was 23 months old he started eating a bit better (thanks to feeding therapy!) and gained a little weight, enough to be in the 5th percentile (whoo!). He was eating 1-2 meals a day, even eating vegetables, and we were not as desperate for him to eat somethinganything, any way possible.

So we sat him down, held his hand and gently patted him on the back, and spoke at a 2 year old level:

No more Elmo. Sorry, love. We do not watch Elmo. You don’t have to eat. It’s OK, you can be “all done” but no more Elmo. 

We did this consistently for about 3 days while he still asked for Elmo. Some days he got upset and we let him get out of his high chair. Some days he whined and mumbled but then sat and ate some food. But after a couple of days he seemed to forget.

The key to quitting screen time cold turkey:

  1. Consistency. Do NOT give in. Once you commit to this, see it through. It will work. It might suck for a few days, but it will work.
  2. Give your kid all their favorite food. Not necessarily candy or junk food, but something that you know they like. Make the first screen-free meal an enjoyable one for them. Now is not the time to expose them to new vegetables or whatever else they will find scary or intimidating. Follow your kid’s cues to see if they want to self-feed or want you to help them eat. Even if they want you to feed them, just do it at first and make the first few screen-free meals as stress-free as possible for them. 
  3. Hide ALL screens before mealtime. Put away all iPads and phones before sitting your kid down. If you normally eat in a room with a TV, try facing the chair away from the TV, or eating in another room (the kitchen vs the dining room?). Don’t tease your kid by having them see a screen. We forgot to do this a few times, and the second my son saw a phone on the counter top he would just start yelling “Elmo Elmo Elmo Elmo Elmo Elmo Elmo!” But we stuck to point #1: Consistency. We would hide the phone, explain to him that there is no Elmo during meals, and give him the option to stop eating.
  4. Sit with your kid and interact with them during mealtimes. Put on some music. Keep them entertained. I remember the first few days after we made the “no iPad during meals” rule, I just chatted away at the dinner table and acted silly and playful and made sure that my son was having a good time. A few days later after I could relax and step away from the table, but the first few days it’s important to sit with your kid to minimize the chances of them getting bored and asking for the iPad.
  5. Consider giving your toddler a little toy to play with at the dining table. Sort of like a little fidget spinner. It’s not ideal and can then turn into your child refusing to eat without a toy, but it helps my son sit and focus. I much prefer him playing with a little toy dinosaur or car and interacting with us than being totally zoned out while watching a screen. I wrote about 3 easy sensory tricks we use to get my son to eat, and one of the tricks is having a little toy for my son to play with at the table.
  6. Our son was old enough to understand that he does not have to eat if he doesn’t want to. He can get down and go play. This gave him the illusion of choice. This would not have been as easy if he was younger, but I bet it still would have worked if we stuck to the other points.

I should add that sometimes we ended up feeding our son while he was playing in the living room. No, it’s not a great way for a kid to eat either. But it helped with the transition from the iPad and still got a few meals per day into him. We are moving away from that and just bringing small toys to the table now. I am OK with this for now. It’s a HUGE improvement over my son being totally zombied out staring at a screen and refusing to eat without Elmo.

When to break the rules

I am proud to say that our son has not watched ANY TV at home in 3 months now. Again, not because we are super strict, but just because we were able to completely stop watching TV during meals, and he has lots of toys to entertain him outside of meal times.

BUT, when we go out to dinner, or when we are traveling and we need my son to eat, we always put on cartoons on the phone. It’s literally the only way our son stays put in his chair, otherwise we have to run around the restaurant after him. And that is just not something we want to do while we are on vacation or when we want to enjoy a meal out. Hey, mama needs a break too

The cool thing is that when we get back home, our son never asks for the iPad or phone. It’s just a different environment than being on vacation, so he doesn’t think to ask for it when he is home. This is another reason to try to get your toddler to eat without the iPad earlier on. I am sure if he was a little older he would figure out that he can ask for the iPad at home if he just used it while on vacation.

The other time we break the rules is when my son is sick and is literally not eating anything. Then we would bring a plate of his favorite food out to the coffee table and put on TV so he can sit and eat. We don’t bring the iPad to the table in this case, because we don’t want him remembering that this is how we used to do things. We try to bring the food to a new environment

But aside from these few exceptions, I am happy to say that we taught our toddler to eat without TV or the iPad, and it has been awesome. We’ve been able to actually enjoy family meals together, and our son is now eating much better than when he was distracted by the screen. 

So what do you think? Do you think this would work for your child? Are you scared to even try? Let me know your thoughts below! And don’t forget to share this on Facebook or Pinterest if you think this could be helpful for other parents.

graphic of parenting tips: how to quit screen time during meals

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  • Reply
    Marisa Aslanian
    December 3, 2019 at 8:12 pm

    Hello, i am currently training my 10 month old to eat without tv. Its been a few days and its been tough. I am currently working part time so my mother in law takes care of her in the morning when im gone for work. The first day, she did not want to eat at all. Second day was easier, she had her breakfast and dinner. However, she became a picky eater and i have to keep on constantly changing food or give her fav food. Now, with my mother in law, it seems she doesnt eat like the way she eats with me. I know it is probably because of the changes and sometimes she thinks she can get away with my mother in law. But i insisted to not give in. Sometimes i feel bad and scare that she wont get enough nutrition or food and lose weight. I know i should keep on trying, but how do i know at what point my baby does not progress ? How long do i have to keep on trying?

    • Reply
      December 4, 2019 at 5:06 am

      Marisa, I just had another thought… and remember I am not your daughter’s pediatrician, this is just what I would say to a friend… if she is already eating a couple of times a day but is still drinking milk/formula, you can try one of two things: 1) Reduce the milk intake and see if she is more willing to eat different foods if she is hungry (this actually did NOT work for my son, he would just get so upset when he was hungry but still refused to eat because he really really did not enjoy eating when he was that age) OR 2) Just give her lots of milk/formula so that she is definitely getting all the calories and nutrition she needs without you worrying, but then during meal times try to expose her to new foods as much as you can while still giving her something she likes and recognizes at every meal. Make sure she has a good time while eating, talk to her, play peekaboo with her, read her a book, make it a positive experience every time. Give that a try for a little while and see if she is open to trying new foods, possibly healthy foods! If yes, it might take her longer to transition from formula/milk to eating real food, but there is a chance that she’ll like a wider variety of food if she’s tried it all instead of getting stuck on a few favorites. Just an idea. Again, I am not a professional, but that is what I would do more of if I had to do it all over again with my son. We kind of inadvertently did this because he refused food and drank milk instead of food for the longest time, so I had lots of time to expose him to all kinds of fruits and veggies, which he now eats! Good luck! Please come back and let me know how it is going in a few days.,.. or DM me on Facebook or Instagram and let me know. -Kate

    • Reply
      December 4, 2019 at 5:06 am

      Hi Marisa, that sounds so tough, but the fact that you have a 10 month old who eats a couple of meals a day is already pretty amazing! Is she also drinking formula or milk several times a day or is food the main part of her calorie intake now? I would try to make sure she is getting enough calories from her favorite foods or fomrula/milk and always offer her a little something new/different/different shape so she always has an option to try something new. It’s definitely tiring but I think it’s so important!

      Try not to give in, consistency is so important. Give it a few more days, try to have her forget about the TV (there’s a benefit to her being so young – shorter memory!). If you really think she is not getting enough food but really don’t want to turn on the TV, then feed her while she’s playing once a day for a few days, just so she gets enough food but so it doesn’t become a habit.

      Does your mother in law come over to you? Or does your daughter go to her? If your daughter goes to her then maybe it’s OK to do things differently since it won’t be 100% of the time, and since she will know that when she is home, she has to eat a certain way. But if your MIL comes to you, then really try to have her feed your daughter how you want her to eat at home.

  • Reply
    February 24, 2020 at 7:28 pm

    Hi Kate! I am hoping you can help me. Your article was so helpful as far as preparing me mentally to make the “no tv during meals” change. But my daughter is only 21 months. Do you think that I should wait for another couple of months or just bite the bullet now? Also, she doesn’t have “favorite foods” really, other than raisins. Should I just be prepared to offer her raisins if she won’t eat at a meal?
    I’m hoping I can reclaim mealtime but am so nervous.

    • Reply
      February 25, 2020 at 2:12 am

      Hi Deepa! I wish I knew the right answers. I think it doesn’t hurt to try no TV right now. If it really doesn’t work right now, then wait a month so she forgets that you tried and doesn’t think that she can get you to give in every time.

      If she likes raisins, does she like any fruit? Or anything else that is sweet, like apple sauce, yogurt, or pureed fruit? Anything that would work as a meal for a few days in case she doesn’t eat any other food? Because eating only raisins for a few days would make me really nervous as well. Hopefully she will get hungry enough and eat other food, but definitely have raisins available.. maybe don’t put them on the plate right away, but if she is getting upset casually then give her some? Don’t make it seem like you’re giving her raisins BECAUSE she doesn’t want to eat other food, because then she might start to think that’s how it’s going to be.

      If she is having a hard time without TV and you do a combination of a small toy at the table, raisins and other foods she likes, making sure she is hungry before feeding her, and maybe sometimes feeding her somewhere else while she is playing or reading, then hopefully she will get out of the habit of needing a TV and THEN you can work on getting her back onto a normal eating routine.

      Let me know how it goes!!

  • Reply
    February 26, 2020 at 7:19 pm

    Kate- thanks so much for your thoughtful reply! The main message I took away is that this is something I need to better prepare for mentally and practically (having the correct mix of foods on hand), and that it shouldn’t be something I just try one evening. So I’m going to hold off for a month (hopefully not more!). Right now I’ll focus on getting her to try and accept different foods, which she does do while watching tv. I’ll update you once I do actually give it a go!

    • Reply
      February 28, 2020 at 4:06 am

      I would love to hear an update – whether it works or doesn’t work (at first). And yea we used to rely on TV to get our son to try new foods.. now we just do it while he is playing or reading. It is just so much easier for us that way than at the table where he gets so stressed out by it… and after a few tries if he really enjoys the food I make sure he sees it, touches it, knows what he is eating so hopefully he remembers that he likes it. So there is still a way to introduce new foods if she is not open to trying them at the table without tv. Good luck!!

  • Reply
    February 27, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    This post could have not come at a better time! We had the same situation as you: picky eater, little weight gain. Now at 2 years old I feel screens served its purpose, but now it is time for learning how to really enjoy food. We are going to go cold Turkey and try it out. Wish us good luck! I do have a question, our daughter takes about 2 to 3 milk portions per day in her sippy cup, usually before nap and bedtime. For example, when arriving from daycare she eats, bathes, and then milk and bed. For example, if she doesn’t eat, what would you recommend? I thought about cutting down the amount, so when she wakes up she would be hungry. She usually sleeps from 1 hour and half to 2 hours

  • Reply
    February 28, 2020 at 4:09 am

    I think cutting down the amount to make her a bit hungrier is a good idea.. and if she doesn’t eat as much (or doesn’t eat at first) you can give her more milk before bed, or maybe give her milk a little earlier if she is hungry. Just don’t let her catch on that she is getting milk instead of dinner! Do it casually as part of your routine. But if you can get her to eat her favorite foods (my son at French fries and jello for several meals for a few days!) just so she gets into the habit of eating and forgets about the tv that would be great! The good thing about this age is that it only takes a few days to a week to form a new habit and forget an old one. Good luck! I would love to hear how it goes!

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