For Meadow Dykes, dinnertime is a kind of race. Her partner is away for most meals, so it’s just Dykes and the three kids. And since her youngest, Dustin, is a squirmy 22-month-old, her challenge is to get him to sit at the table long enough so she can finish eating.
“As soon as he is done, he throws everything on the floor and wants out immediately. Now I try not to give him any food at all until I am ready to sit down, and that buys a little time.” Dykes knows long, leisurely meals are simply not within a toddler’s capability.
That kind of perspective will serve parents well through mealtimes with little kids. “Toddlers are just trying to learn who they are and struggling with the independence that they are just starting to understand,” says Scott Cowley, an early childhood education teacher at Toronto’s Centennial College. “It’s not always them actually misbehaving. It’s just a stage in their development.”
So how should you handle toddler table challenges? Cowley dishes on some typical troubles:
My child hardly eats anything at dinnertime.
Toddler appetites are naturally smaller than they were in the first year, when babies grow fast. And while adults often prefer for dinner to be the biggest meal of the day, young children may reverse that preference.
“Find out what they’ve eaten, and when, at the daycare,” suggests Cowley. “If they’ve had a good breakfast and lunch, they just might not be hungry for dinner.”
Simple, familiar finger foods may appeal more than traditional “dinner foods” at the end of a tired toddler’s day. But, in general, you can trust your child’s appetite — she knows how much food she needs.
My child plays with his food and makes an awful mess.
Dumping, throwing and “mucksing” are part of a child’s exploration of the world, but that doesn’t mean you have to allow it with food, says Cowley. “When a child purposefully dumps something and then looks over at you to see if you are watching, he is testing his boundaries and limits.” You, on the other hand, are teaching him, gently, how people act at mealtime.
Start with modelling, says Cowley. “Sit down with kids and eat when they do. Show them how to use their utensils and what you do with food.”
Expect young diners to get messy in the normal course of eating — they will use their hands, or have mishaps with their spoons, and a little food exploration is part of learning. But when your child starts deliberately throwing food, it’s time to intervene. Assume he’s done his meal and simply take him down from the high chair. Prevent big messes by making sure he only has a little food at a time.
She won’t sit still through the meal!
“Toddlers are full of energy and have short attention spans, so it’s not realistic to expect that they sit for long periods of time,” says Cowley.
Still, you can do things to help them sit long enough to eat. “Look at what comes before,” suggest Cowley. “An activity that lets them move around a lot and use up some energy might help them settle down at mealtime.”
Consistent but reasonable expectations are helpful, says Cowley. Start with what your child is capable of now, and build from there. “If you always expect toddlers to stay in the high chair until they are finished, or say for 15 minutes, it will become routine,” he suggests.
Finally, have something safe and quiet your child can do nearby if she is finished but you are not, to buy you a bit more time for your own meal.
He insists on feeding himself, even though he can’t manage a spoon.
Kids at this stage are asserting their new-found autonomy and it’s important to allow them to experience success at feeding themselves. That said, most kids will settle for a compromise, says Cowley: “Have something they can feed themselves, like bread or frozen peas, while you handle the messier foods.”
If your child is a hard-liner and won’t even look at anything gloppy on a spoon? In a pinch, a toddler can survive quite well on mostly finger foods. It won’t be long until he can either manage a spoon himself, or gets hungry enough to let you spoon in a bit of cereal.
Finger Food Safety
Most toddlers love to feed themselves and finger foods are easiest for them to handle. But some foods pose choking hazards and should not be fed to children under age four. High on the list are round, rubbery foods like hot dogs and grapes, that are tailor-made to plug a tiny airway. Cut these foods lengthwise in half, then into bite-sized pieces.
Some other hazards:
• raw carrots (steam or grate before serving)
• large chunks of apple (grate or slice thinly)
• hard or chewy candies and gum
• “gobs” of peanut butter (spread thinly)
• nuts and seeds