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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.