Meal time is about more than putting food into our bodies. The family meal also offers:
- Together Time: a chance to talk and connect as a family
- Social Skills Practice: a place to learn polite manners and the art of conversation
- Routine and Rituals: grounding in a reassuringly predictable experience
- Healthy Habits: modelling, practicing and discussing healthy eating
Unfortunately, children don’t come into the world prepared to be pleasant dinner companions. Proper mealtime behavior is a learned skill. There are many steps you can take to start the path to making meals enjoyable and pleasant for everyone. I offer some tips here which most experts recommend, but there is no one right way to parent, so you should do things that work best for your family.
Whose Job Is It?
I find this message from Ellyn Satter about the division of responsibilities is simple but really powerful:
You are responsible for what, when, and where. Your child is responsible for how much and whether.
Your role is to offer healthy food and be a good role model for healthy eating. But, your child will choose whether to eat something and how much to eat. Don’t turn meals into a power struggle. Help them to be a joyful time.
What to Eat
Put out a variety of healthy foods. Let your child serve himself, choosing how much to put on his plate (encourage him to start with small servings – reassuring him he can always have more). Be a good role model in your own food choices and portion sizes.
Involve your child in choosing and preparing the food. They are often more willing to eat a variety of foods if they were involved in making it.
Help your child recognize when she is full – this will decrease the chance of later obesity. Don’t praise children for a clean plate. Reward them with attention, kind words and fun activities, not food.
Don’t restrict certain foods – they may become the “forbidden fruit” and children will overeat them when they can. Offer small amounts of dessert items with the rest of the food – don’t set it aside as the “special” part of the meal.
When to Eat
Newborns have tiny tummies and digest breastmilk or formula quickly so need to be fed often. So parents get used to lots and lots of “meals” every day. As children get older, they no longer have that need, but I feel like many parents continue to use snacking as an anytime activity / distraction for their toddlers and preschoolers. It is better for older children to have a routine such as three meals a day with an afternoon snack and a bedtime snack, and avoid continuous grazing.
Allow plenty of time at the table. At least 20 minutes for a meal. When your child is full, he can leave the table, but let him know that when he leaves the table that means he’s done for that meal – he can’t come and grab bites then run off to play.
Where to Eat
Eat at the dining table or in the kitchen. Not in the play room, or in front of the TV, or in a bedroom. This helps keep the rest of the house cleaner, but also helps us remember to be conscious of what we’re eating and not just eat because we’re bored. (Most experts would say don’t eat in the car, but I have to confess that as a parent, I’m often running late to things so we eat in the car on the way there… I won’t say it’s perfect, but it’s apparently part of our reality.)
Ask your child to help prepare for the meal, perhaps by carrying things to the table, setting the table, turning off the TV, or calling other family members in. Clean up together. Involve them in clearing the table, and wiping the table. Don’t present these things as chores that they get punished if they don’t do (if you don’t ____, then ____). Instead present them as just part of the work of the family and let them know that when we get our family work done, we get to have fun together. (“When we’ve cleaned up dinner, then we get to play.”)
A two year old can learn to use a spoon and a fork, drink from a regular cup, and feed herself a wide variety of finger foods. Allow for some mess – children are learning how to eat neatly. Help her use a napkin to wipe her face if needed, but don’t feel like you have to hover over her and clean up after bite. You may need to set limits on mess-making. If she starts throwing food or intentionally dropping it, end the meal. Take her away from the table and clean up the food. (Don’t worry if she didn’t eat “enough”. She won’t starve between now and the next meal, and we want her to get the message not to make a mess.)
During the meal, engage in conversation. Many families have a ritual question, such as “highs and lows” or “what is one thing you learned today” or “what is one thing you were grateful for today.”
Family meals matter: research shows kids who regularly eat with their families do better in school, have better self esteem, make healthier food choices, and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
More on manners: www.parenting.com/article/ask-dr-sears-table-manners-for-toddlers; https://www.babycenter.com/toddler/development/teaching-table-manners-to-your-toddler_1429019
Learn more about nutrition recommendations for toddlers. This post from Mott’s Childrens’ Hospital is on picky eaters, but offers lots of great all-purpose mealtime tips, and here’s my post on picky eaters. Also, check out Ellyn Satter’s website.
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