In the previous blog on mealtime language, we covered how the language we use around mealtimes can affect our children’s experiences with food. Another aspect of weaning that I often talk about is the mealtime environment. Having a positive experience at the table can have a huge impact on our little one’s eating. In this blog, Dr Martha gives her advice on how to set expectations and manage toddler behaviour to help kids enjoy mealtimes.
Setting Mealtime Expectations
Learning to eat is also about learning social rules and rituals at the table.
Little ones and toddlers find it hard to sit at a table as long as adults do. Their stomachs are a lot smaller, and their attention span and focus is a lot shorter. For many 3-5 year olds, sitting in one place for longer than 15-20min can be difficult. Sitting at the table is no different!
Setting a boundary can help. This may sound like, “We are eating at the table. If your tummy says it has had enough you can say “I am full”. If you keep getting off the table, I will assume you are finished. What is your tummy telling you?” Take your child’s lead. If they sit and eat more, great. If they say “I am done” remove their plate and keep going with your meal.
And if they sit down to have a bite and get up again, follow through with your boundary. (e.g. “I can see you have got up again. I am going to assume you have finished eating and take your plate away”).
When you are in a social context you may need to create more engagement at mealtime, involving them in conversation, bringing out the giggles and fun, and if you really need them to sit at the table (e.g., in a café or restaurant) offering them an activity they can enjoy while you finish your meal. I recommend colouring in, stickers or small puzzles rather than using screens at the table.
As for screens, although they will keep your child sitting for longer, they put their brain in a state of dormancy that inhibits their hunger cue. This means children (and adults) are more likely to either eat less than they need or overeat to the point of discomfort. If you need to use a screen at the table, make sure your child has decided they are full and see it as a post-lunch activity rather than something that keeps them at the table during the meal.
How to Manage Toddler Behaviour at the Table
Many parents ask, “how do I get my child to behave at the dinner table?”
Many little ones throw food and/or spit things out. When the meal you have spent your time and energy to cook is being thrown on the floor and/or spat out, it can bring up Anger and upset. Throwing and spitting are developmental milestones, skills they couldn’t do when they were babies, and they are also part sensory explorations with their bodies. It can help to offer throwing games with soft balls outside of mealtimes and opportunities to spitting in appropriate settings, such as playing with water during bath time or after brushing their teeth.
All behaviour is communication and understanding what your child is trying to tell you is a first step to managing the behaviour you want to see less of at the table. I have listed common things children try to communicate with some suggestions of what may help in these instances. What works best for you and your family is unique so do consider adapting these suggestions to be a good fit for you.
See also Charlotte’s tips on food throwing based on her own experiences with Ada.
“I don’t want to eat this”. If your child is exploring foods with their hands or mouth and choosing to not eat them it can help to offer your child an alternative behaviour that is more appropriate. Use a section of their plate and/or the side of the table to show your child what they can do with food they have thrown or spat out. (e.g., “I see you threw the potato (picking it off the floor and modelling). If you don’t want to eat something you can put it on the side here.”). Don’t force your child to taste or eat any of the foods they put on the side!
“I am full”. Help your child learn to communicate with words and more appropriate actions such as pushing their plate away or waving their hand to say, ‘all done’. If you are unsure whether your child has finished, you can offer a reminder (“Oh! You are throwing your food. I think that means you are all done. If you throw something again, I will know to take your plate away”)
“I am full”. Help your child learn to communicate with words and more appropriate actions such as pushing their plate away or waving their hand to say, ‘all done’. If you are unsure whether your child has finished, you can offer a reminder (“Oh! You are throwing your food. I think that means you are all done. If you throw something again, I will know to take your plate away”
“I am bored!”. Children learn quickly through your responses whether throwing or spitting will get them your attention. Respond with calm, focus on what you want to see rather than what you do not. For example, pick up the food and remind them where they can put it if they don’t want to eat it. Ask them if they are ‘all done’ with their meal. Follow-through gently if your child continues to spit or throw and move them to interact with something else, off the table preferably to limit the association of spitting or throwing being rewarded with enjoyable activity.
“I feel overwhelmed”. Little one’s stomachs are no bigger than the size of your fist. If you notice throwing and spitting happens more than eating, consider removing most of the food and offering only 2-3 bites at a time on their plate. It is better for kids to want to eat more than offering them so much food it puts them off from eating all together.
Some more tips…
Most children will go through one of these phases at one point or another. For most children, these phases are short-lived. Your job is to bring your calm and remain consistent with the strategies you choose to use. Often the less fuss you make about your child’s eating, the quicker the phase passes.
It can help to remember that children learn how to eat and what is expected at the table from watching and copying those around them.
If you want your child to sit at the table, ensure that you and the rest of the family do the same – as many times a week as possible!
Do role model these strategies to your child. Let them see you eat a range of foods, including some you may not enjoy. It can help to show your child that you are also learning to like foods. You might try some at the table and leave it on the side of your plate while saying something like, “I am still learning to like this food. Maybe I will taste it again next time”.
Show your child the behaviours you want to see more in them.
Many children are naturally nervous of new things and it can take lots of familiarity before they decide to taste it, let alone like it! So keep offering moments of exploration with foods in playful and sensory ways using neutral language and no pressure to try them.
Remember that eating is a social experience. Think of mealtimes as small pockets of time where you can build positive experiences together. Let food become something that brings you together rather than pulls you apart!
If your child is showing signs of fussiness and you’d like more advice on helping children to love food, check out the factsheet ‘How to Cope with Fussy Eating.’
About Dr Martha
Dr Martha Deiros Collado, is a clinical psychologist and HCPC registered practitioner with over 20 years of clinical and academic experience. She is also a mother of one, a yogi, a runner, and adventure sports enthusiast.
Martha’s expertise is in parenting, child development, and paediatric health. She specialises in helping children and their parents cope with distress taking a holistic systems approach that values the individual, their family, and the networks around them.
You can follow Dr Martha on her Instagram page.