Mealtimes with toddlers
Food glorious food! So new and exciting for toddlers and a great way for them to learn behavioural skills.
At a glance
Mealtimes with the family are a great way to develop your toddler’s table manners, communication, expression, and all-round social skills
Give them freedom. Offer them small portions of a variety of foods and let them do the choosing
Toddlers are learning to exert their independence so don’t be surprised if there’s the odd tantrum at the dinner table
If you're eating out, ask about high chairs and book an early time to make life easier
Eating family meals with toddlers
If you can establish family mealtimes with toddlers at an early age, food can be a great source of pleasure. It’s not just a wonderful opportunity for the family to sit together and bond but also for your toddler to develop their communication skills and build positive eating habits. Here’s why:
- Toddlers are copycats – at this age, toddlers are little mimics and eating together is a good way to teach them via example. They’ll even learn table manners from you. So, if you don’t want elbows on the table, you know what to do. Sitting around the table together can also help beef up their communication skills.
- They’ll develop their motor skills – your toddler will want to be like you. The more they eat with you, the quicker they will move on from using their hands, to using cutlery – just by watching and copying. At this age they may be ambidextrous so don’t be surprised if they use their left hand as much as their right. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re left-handed. Some children don’t pick a side until they’re two, three or even four years old.
- Veggies. Yum! – research shows that toddlers eat more fruit and veg when they eat together with the family. They’re watching you eat your broccoli and carrots and they want to do the same. It’s that simple.
Dealing with a picky eater
Catering for a fussy eater? Of course – most toddlers have very discerning palates. Remember they’re mini humans who just want to be independent, which often starts with eating. Or, not eating. Get used to your toddler refusing to eat with the tight-lipped headshake that means ‘No!’ If your toddler doesn’t like green beans they won’t eat them. That doesn’t mean they’ll always refuse. Keep offering, and one day when they’re ready, that green bean could be the new flavour of the month.
- Start with small amounts so they’re not overwhelmed by large portions.
- Add a bit of variety and healthy eating options so they can try different things and find something they like.
- Don’t worry about trying to get them to clear their plate. This can lead to food refusal which can make them anxious about mealtimes.
Read more about ways to cope with a fussy eater.
Avoiding mealtime tantrums
Family mealtimes can be a lovely way to bring everyone together. In theory. Throw a toddler into the mix, however, and your family feast can turn into a food fight in the blink of an eye. Here are some ways to keep dinnertime a drama-free zone.
No screen time at mealtime.
Try to keep distractions away from the table, no screens or noisy toys. If the entertainment stays focussed on food with lots of ‘mmmming’ and ‘yumming’, your toddler will want to join in.
Ignore silly behaviour.
Throwing food around, shouting, banging on the table. Sitting down to a meal with the family is a relatively new experience for your toddler and they’re still trying to figure out how they fit in. If you pay attention to silliness it might be used to get your attention again next time.
Let them eat praise.
Toddlers lap up praise. Give them a clap or a ‘well done’ every time they try something new, use a spoon without mess, or show off some other good table manners.
Don’t focus all your attention on them.
It’s a family meal after all so everyone deserves their moment at the table.
Don’t offer alternatives.
Remember mealtimes are as much about learning how to behave as they are about discovering food. If they refuse what’s on the table, let that be the end of it. Don’t offer snacks as a replacement. Stay firm or they may think tantrums are a way to get what they want.
Be prepared for the odd mealtime meltdown.
It’s to be expected, given your toddler now has another outlet to exercise their choice and test boundaries (and your patience). Stay calm and read up on dealing with tantrums.
Tips for eating out with a toddler
A change of scene can make a meal feel fun and exciting as well as being a treat for you.
- Choose child-friendly. Look out for restaurants that welcome children, the presence of high chairs and crayons is a good sign.
- Book an early table. The restaurant won’t mind and you can avoid a busy restaurant full of other diners in case your little one has a few ‘wobbles’.
- Pack back up. Bring Tupperware with their favourite pasta dish or some yummy snacks. The last thing you want is a tantrum because they don’t like the olive tapenade.
- Create games. If your little fidgeter is getting bored try and entertain them with a game. Stack up the sugar packets, play the teaspoon drums (not too loud though) and have a mini straw war.
- Keep it short and sweet. Let’s face it, you’re not going to have time for the a la carte tasting menu so just enjoy a break from the cooking and washing up and head home when someone’s had enough.