Making Mealtimes Fun for Babies, Toddlers, and Young Children
Mealtimes can be a challenge when you have young kids. Help your child practice the skills necessary to make meals an enriching experience for the whole family.
Mealtimes with young children can be a challenge. Children go through phases of picky eating, their energy needs cause them to get up frequently during mealtimes, background noises can be a huge distraction, and young children often engage in negative behaviors during meals. It can be a monumental task to get your child to eat - let alone sit a the table and practice mealtime manners. Help your child make mealtimes more engaging, fun, and pleasant by teaching them the skills they need to enjoy family meals.
Did you know that mealtime manners can be taught even to young infants?
Does your baby throw their food on the floor, squish their food up in their hands, toss their spoon off the side of the plate, shove their snacks into the high chair, or try to climb out of their seat?
It's important for parents to view mealtimes as more than just a way to provide nutrition. Mealtime is a way for families to connect and develop a routine. Babies and toddlers aren't helpless creatures, and understanding where they are coming from can help make mealtimes more enjoyable and their negative behaviors less frustrating. Eliminate mealtime stress by taking the pressure off of eating, and focusing more on the experience.
Why do babies throw food onto the floor?
Babies don't create mealtime battles for fun. They are always experimenting and learning. Throwing food on the floor is a way of exploring cause-and-effect. Throwing food is not an absent-minded activity. An infant behaves in purposeful ways to enrich their learning experience.
The next time your baby throws food onto the floor, remain calm and ask them to keep the food on the table (even if they're too young to respond). Give your baby your full attention. Try to eliminate distractions so that you can teach, engage, and be present with your little one. Try not to let mealtimes become a stressful point in your day. Sharing food can be a way to fuel relationships.
There is no reason to get angry with a baby that tosses food even when they appear to be hungry. Watch your baby, and observe how they feel. Why are they engaging in that particular behavior? Try to see the situation from their point of view. Tune into your baby's needs, and mealtimes will go more smoothly.
The next time your baby tries to throw food, gently hold their hand before they're able to toss the food. Ask if they are all done with the meal. Try to have a big level of engagement during mealtimes. Hold the boundary - if the child continues to throw food, take them out of the chair and try again later! Know when to follow your little one's cues. Younger kids might have a hard time with meals. It takes lots of patience, time, and practice to learn the rules of mealtime.
Parents often absentmindedly place food into babies' mouths instead of waiting for the baby to be ready for the next bite. It is important for parents to wait until their little one is not distracted, and this requires slowing down and staying calm. Wait until your baby looks at you before placing food into his mouth.
Eating food is an intentional act. You and your baby both need to be involved in the feeding process. Only give your baby food when they are ready for more; don't wait for a moment when they are distracted.
How the rules apply to older children:
An older child can understand when it is time to eat. Politely discuss with your kids the rules about sitting together until everyone is done with their meal. Remind them that throwing food is not acceptable in your house. Teach them that getting up and running around during a meal is also an unacceptable behavior. Even younger kids can learn how to sit down and eat a meal with family. Children are very aware of family rules and customs.
Four tips for getting your child to sit at mealtime:
1. Include your child in meal preparation.
Even very young toddlers can assist in simple meal preparation. Young kids love to have special jobs to do and to be included in cooking meals. The more a child participates in the steps of preparing a meal, the more likely they’ll be to sit and enjoy the meal once it’s ready! This might also encourage picky eaters to try new foods as well.
Young kids can help set the table (toddlers and preschoolers might enjoy just setting up their own eating area and utensils). Find an empty cabinet or drawer, and fill it with what your child will need to set their place at the table (plastic silverware, plastic placemats, bowls, cups). You can also put extra items (measuring cups, spoons, ladles, funnels, old plastic containers) that your child can play with while you cook in the background.
2. Make the table space fun.
If your kids are having a hard time staying at the table, make mealtimes more fun! Infants can enjoy toys that attach to the high chair tray with a suction cup, or they can read board books or play with plastic cups or measuring spoons.
Toddlers and young children might enjoy placemats they can color on (or you can even just lay out butcher paper on the kitchen table), water painting books, educational placements that teach concepts like letters or shapes, or children’s plates that have a special activity (a game where they have to eat a bite at a time to get to the finish line, or a plate where the foods become part of a person’s face). Table games such as Mad Libs can be a fun way to engage everyone in the mealtime experience. You can even do something as simple as taking a page or two out of your child's favorite coloring book to set at the table for when they need a break from eating.
Eliminate distractions such as the television or any personal electronics. That also means that mom and dad should put their phones away, too! Focus on eye contact, conversation, and the shared experience of eating a meal together.
3. Get your child the proper seating.
Young babies need a high chair that has lots of support, has a tray, and has seat belts to keep your little one safe. It is important for infants to sit upright while eating to avoid choking. Be sure that your baby can sit upright with minimal assistance before starting solids. As your little one grows, she might enjoy the high chair tray being removed and the chair being pushed up to the kitchen table. Your child can enjoy eating with everyone else! Just be sure to keep dangerous items (knives, scissors, etc) and hot plates away from your child’s reach. Your baby will also need a footrest that their legs can reach, even if that means creating one yourself and attaching it to the chair. Their legs and feet should be at a 90-degree angle.
As your little one progresses into toddlerhood and early childhood, a booster seat that attaches to the kitchen chair can be helpful. A 90-degree angle for your child’s feet is still important in toddlerhood. There are many products available online and in stores that will help your toddler achieve the correct sitting position for mealtime. When your kids are comfortable while they eat, they’ll be more likely to sit through a whole meal without getting up.
4. Make dinner about quality time as a family.
It isn’t always possible to sit down for a family dinner every night, but it's important to have meals as a family as much as possible. Throughout the day, try to make mealtimes a communal experience. Take the time to prepare and eat food with your child, and they’ll be more likely to enjoy the experience.
If family dinners are possible in your schedule, use that time to have meaningful conversations about each other’s days and the goals for the week. Toddlers and preschoolers might have trouble engaging in a long conversation about their daily life, so try asking simple questions and keeping the pressure off of them. Mealtimes can be stressful, so as much as possible, try to keep the mood positive and relational.
Make mealtimes go smoothly with KeaBabies Presto Waterproof Bibs.
Suitable for ages 6-36 months (great for infants and toddlers!), the KeaBabies Presto Waterproof Bibs provide lightweight, effective way to keep your little one's clothing clean during mealtime. These waterproof bibs cover your child's full chest and shoulders, allowing meals to be mess-free! These ultra-lightweight bibs are easy to clean, machine-washable, and fold to fit perfectly in any purse or diaper bag. From breakfast to dinner, these bibs will keep your baby's outfit looking great.
These bibs also have a food pocket to catch any crumbs and spills, allowing your little one to enjoy anything on the menu without creating a huge mess. These bibs are ideal for mealtime, snacking, and baby-led weaning. These excellent bibs are reusable and sustainable, BPA and PVC-free. At KeaBabies, your little one's health and comfort are our utmost priority.
Mealtimes with a baby or young child won't always be easy, but they can be an enriching experience.
Children can bond with their parents through eating. Sharing a meal is a great communal experience and teaches your child many more skills besides just how to eat.
Through lots of patience and practice, even young toddlers can learn to share a meal with family and respect the rules of the dinner table.
Meet Our KeaMommy Contributor: Kaitlyn Torrez
I’m Kaitlyn Torrez, from the San Francisco Bay Area. I live with my husband and two children, Roman and Logan. I’m a former preschool teacher, currently enjoying being a stay at home mom. I love all things writing, coffee, and chocolate. In my free time, I enjoy reading, blogging, and working out.