“We all eat as a family now”
That’s great news. This is one of the best things you can do to help your toddler grow, develop, enjoy a variety of food and eat the right amount of food. Your child will do best with eating, when you lead the way. Set up the structure and then give them choices within that structure.
What should we be doing?
- Eating at set times every two to three hours
- Three main meals
- Two – three mid meals
- Sitting down
Why is setting reliable eating times important?
Without structured meal times, toddlers may graze on foods in between meals, making it harder for toddlers to eat the right amount. They’ll lose track of when they’re hungry or full and may over or under eat. They’re more likely to be naughty and less interested in the nutritious meal you’ve served. If you’re having trouble with a fussy eater, you won’t have much chance of improving meal times if you don’t get the structure in place.
When toddlers know for sure a meal is coming soon, they can relax about food and not become focused on it. Toddlers who are described as compulsive eaters (acting like they can’t be filled up) may not be provided with reliably timed meals. Your child doesn’t know when they can rely on food coming and therefore overeat when they can. The outcomes of this can be really significant for long term health and weight management.
Grazing on food frequently can lead to children having problems with their teeth. You’ll also find that toddlers grazing and eating around the house will lead to more work for you, cleaning up after sticky hands and things dropped on the floor.
Why is eating together important?
Family meals offer emotional and social learning time. The feeding relationship is important for emotional development. When your toddler enjoys and behaves well at meals, over time they’ll learn to eat almost everything you eat. You being there is the main thing.
They will eat better with you there
Your toddler will be more courageous eating new foods if you’re there. When you’re eating the same food as them, they’ll know the food is safe and they’ll be more willing to try it. Providing regular family meals reassures your child that they are a priority.
Other benefits of the family meal
Research shows children who grow up having family meals are less likely to become overweight, abuse drugs or smoke and are more likely to feel better about themselves, get along well with others and do better in school.
What to do
Make eating together a priority
Life gets busy and there is always lots of reasons getting together for a meal can be difficult. There will be unavoidable and avoidable things stopping you from getting to a family meal.
Family mealtime may not be familiar to you if you did not have them growing up. However, family mealtimes should be made to be a priority. Try to plan (as much as you can) to be around for meals and ensure you eat together.
Don’t have two separate eating times; one for them and one for you. It may be that you eat a little bit earlier and they eat a little bit later. Eating with everyone there may not always be possible but trying to do this “most” of the time is essential.
Keep it mellow
Your aim is that meal time is a pleasant time. Be there for your child, keep them company, have mellow chats, help them with what they need and enjoy this time yourself.
Having meals and positive feeding is really important. Don’t use this time to have a ruck with your partner, other children or to bring up negative topics likely to upset people. Your toddler will get upset. Once they’re upset the chances of them eating well will be reduced big time. Your child won’t want to try any new foods and their appetite will be overcome by their feeling of being upset.
Trying to restrict or pressure your child’s eating will turn dinner into a battle ground. A lot of meals have been ruined with fights over vegetables. Don’t pick your battles, don’t pick any battles.
Embrace the mess
It will be messy. Stay calm and patient it’ll help your toddler to enjoy mealtimes.
Your toddler needs to get to know the food and this can be by playing and throwing.
If it becomes all about throwing food around then we’ll know that they’re not hungry and the meal should end. You can make cleaning up easier by spreading newspaper or plastic under the highchair and having a cloth handy.
Don’t have any distractions at the table that make eating compete with other activities.
It’s all about you guys and the food. This is a way we’ll be more likely to tap into our hunger and fullness feelings and stop eating when satisfied (a very handy skill for weight management and ongoing health).
Have you heard of the term mindful eating? It’s not something flash, it’s just eating without distractions and concentrating on your food.
Turn off the TV, put down books, toys and games and no phones at the table.
What about the food?
Your job is to provide and the child decides. You make the menu choices so you might as well make it food you like. You need to stay motivated with your job as food provider, so enjoy!
- Everyone at the table gets the same foods
- Provide both familiar with unfamiliar foods to your toddler
- Provide preferred foods with less preferred
- You choose food not your child, don’t make any substitutes
- Your family’s meals don’t always have to be about home-cooked meals, make getting together the first priority.
The Mid Meal (Snack)
We’d rather call this the mid meal than snack to emphasise this meal needs to count. It’s not just a food handout. Infants and children have little tummies and need opportunities to eat nutritious foods more often (every two – three hours).
- Sit down for the mid meal
- Make sure there are foods available that are hearty and filling enough to satisfy your child
- Let your child eat until they are satisfied
- Don’t let your child have food between meals except for water
- Don’t allow yourself or your child to eat on the run or eat along with other activities
- Make sure that you are there
- Provide a sit-down bedtime snack, even if your child didn’t eat much at dinner. (Make it something filling but not too exciting, such as cereal or crackers fruit and milk)
Start the meal prep routine
Your toddler is understanding you more and more so it’s time to start getting them used to the meal readiness routine. Give them a verbal warning “Richard… it’s snack time now… shall we wash our hands?” Then bring them to the table.