How to make toddler mealtimes a fun and calm experience

Mealtimes with a toddler can be messy, noisy, frustrating, and sometimes stressful. But, as parents, what we really need to do is see it all from their little eyes.

For children, everything is new to them. They are only just starting to learn about their bodily sensations and the world around them. They are constantly bombarded with new experiences and sensory information. Can you imagine how even the simple act of eating can get terribly overwhelming for them at times?

Think about meal times with your child. We’re offering them foods with different and most likely completely new flavours, textures, smells, and temperatures. Then, perhaps we’re using the spoon or wipe to wipe around their mouths between mouthfuls; or we don’t allow them to put their hands in the bowl when they reach for it; or we look anxious when food spills onto their clothes and the floor.

Eating is an incredible amount of information for them to take in. If we add any kind of stress or fuss to an already overwhelming experience, we’re not helping them to make it a positive one. They will probably go into fight or flight mode, and flat out refuse to eat.

So, what can we do to help make eating a fun and calm experience for our children?

Embrace the mess

  • Stay calm throughout the meal and allow them to play with their food. It probably goes against what you were told as a child, but playing is their way of being little scientists. They need to experiment and explore in their own time, so there’s no need to rush it.
  • Try to avoid showing your frustration – you can quietly swear to yourself as you scrub the nooks and crannies of the highchair and sweep the floor once they’re busy doing something else.
  • Only wipe their face and hands when they’ve finished the meal. Telling them you’re about to do so helps, too. Most toddlers don’t like getting their faces wiped but it’s because they often don’t get any warning, and it’s again another sensation for them to deal with. A soft, damp washcloth is all you need rather than wipes that may sting a sensitive face.

Have realistic expectations

Acknowledge that children are going to resist new foods because, as you now know, it’s a multi-sensory experience for them. There’s so much going on for them. The sensation of it in their mouths, then of it going down their throats, and the way it makes their little tummies feel as it fills.

Take it slow and be patient. If they refuse a food, that’s fine – it can take up to 20 exposures to a new food before they even take a bite.

Keep offering new foods

Continue exposing them to a variety of food. Just because they love pasta or toast, don’t think you have to only offer that because they’re guaranteed to eat it. Keep offering them a rainbow of food every day, and make sure you’re eating it with them so that you’re modelling a positive attitude towards meal times.

There’s no need to coax (as in ‘just try one bite please’) or reward them (save your happy dance for later!) when they do try a new food.

A good idea is to have them sitting at the family table and providing a platter of different foods in the middle of the table, ‘buffet-style’. There’s no pressure for them to eat it and it provides an opportunity for them to be autonomous over their food choices.

Eat together as a family

Having your child sit with the family is an important part of teaching them to eat from the very first bite. When you eat as a family, you’re modeling how to eat, how to use utensils, how enjoyable food is, and what a positive and social experience it can be. For this reason, look for a chair that allows your baby to directly sit at the table, making them feel like part of the family.

Ensure they’re comfortable

Speaking of chairs…as a child grows, any issues such as refusing to eat or pickiness can often be traced back to how they’re sitting for meals. If you’ve ever eaten at a bar stool, you’ll know how much effort it takes to sit still and eat your meal calmly. Likewise, a toddler’s chair shouldn’t be a hindrance to their ability to eat.

  • Ensure that their chair isn’t reclining (have you ever tried eating reclined in an armchair?)
  • A child’s hips, knees, and feet are all at 90 degree angles.
  • Their feet should reach a foot rest, and not just dangling.
  • The chair should grow with the child, so is ideally fully adjustable to fit every size and age of a child.
  • If the chair has a tray, it’s a good idea to remove it so that they’re eating at the table like the rest of the family.

Understand your role in feeding your child

The Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR) is an evidence-based approach to feeding children, pioneered by Ellyn Satter. The concept gives parents control of what, when, and where a child eats, while your little one chooses how much they’ll consume and whether they’ll eat the foods you offer.

In other words, you choose and prepare the food, and provide regular meals and snacks where and when you decide to. Then, part of your feeding job is to trust that your child will eat the amount they need, or even if they eat at all, and understand that they’re learning to eat.

Plenty of sensory and messy play opportunities

This tip for fun and calm toddler mealtimes is a bonus one. It’s something to do away from the meal table, but will go a long way towards good eating habits as they grow. Sensory and messy play is not only fun but important for their development. The more sensations they get exposed to and become comfortable with, the more open they will be to trying new foods.

  • If your little one gets upset when their hands are dirty, reassure them that it’s ok to get messy, and try to refrain from cleaning them the minute they get something on their hands.
  • When you go out, encourage your child to get dirty. It’s not only good for building their immunity but it’s a great way to expose them to new sensations. Take their shoes off and let them feel the grass or sand between their toes. Let them pick up leaves and stones. If you have a toddler that puts everything in their mouth, don’t worry, this is how they explore their world. Have fun (but keep choking hazards away) with your little explorer, even if it grosses you out a bit!
  • Check out these play ideas:

5 taste-safe baby messy play ideas

Sensory play ideas for babies

Homemade playdough recipe (taste-safe and baby friendly)

Sensory bottles and bags – How to make your own 

Top 10 Sensory activities to do with baby this Spring

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