Mealtime Routines and Tips for Toddlers

16 December 2021

There is no denying that mealtimes with a toddler can be tough. Whether you are faced with a picky eater or a little one that would much prefer to be running around and playing, getting a toddler to sit down and eat a balanced meal is not easy. Mealtimes are something that a lot of parents struggle with and you are certainly not alone, though it may feel like that sometimes. When you are battling with a toddler to try something new or begging them to finish the one vegetable that is on their plate, giving up and handing them what they want often seems like the easiest option for a fed child and a quiet life. However, this is unlikely to encourage healthy eating habits and develop social skills in the long run. Thankfully, there are a tonne of mealtime routines you can follow and lots of helpful tips for managing mealtimes with toddlers.

Choosing Baby’s First Finger Foods

When the time comes to move your baby from being solely breastfed or bottle fed onto solid foods, you might feel overwhelmed with all of the information out there. If this is the case, you are not definitely alone. A lot of parents know it is time for their child to move onto solids - they have reached the recommended age and they are showing all of the signs of being ready for solids - but starting to incorporate solids into your child’s diet is not always easy. Not only will you want to choose the best dinnerware sets and ensure you have everything you need for the task at hand, but you will also want to choose the ideal finger foods. After all, you want your child to move onto solids safely and in a way that they enjoy. Luckily, there are many foods that are often hailed as being the ‘go to’ options for baby’s first finger foods.

There are a lot of benefits that come with letting your child explore finger foods. Finger foods encourage coordination and they help to develop biting, feeding and chewing skills. The best first finger foods for a baby are those that can be picked up and held easily. Banana, avocado, pear and peach are good to start with as they are soft and your baby can mash them with their gums, effectively making them melt in their mouth. As your baby gets better at feeding themselves and eating solids, you can move onto other foods that require a little bit of chewing such as toast cut into fingers and cooked pasta shapes. Eventually, you can incorporate foods that need to be bitten and chewed. This includes raw carrots, sleeves of apple, small pieces of meat and cheese.

When you are choosing finger food for your baby, it’s important to remember that they are unlikely to enjoy everything that you put in front of them. Adding solid food into your baby’s diet is more about getting them to try new flavours and textures, and improving their overall coordination skills, rather than finishing everything that is on their plate. As young children will still get a lot of nutrients from their milk, there doesn’t need to be a big emphasis on providing them with a balanced meal at all times. If they eat something new, consider it a win.

Top Tips for Tackling Toddler Mealtimes

  • Offer a Selection of Foods - A lot of parents make the mistake of finding a handful of foods that their toddler likes and sticking to them, knowing that this will guarantee they are fed and happy at mealtimes. However, variety really is the spice of life and offering a selection of foods can expand your child’s palate and encourage healthy eating habits. A divided plate is good for this, as it reminds you that a toddler should be seeing different types of food at every mealtime. Instead of offering your toddler one or two things, mix it up by including a range of flavours and textures in the meal. This allows them to explore, experiment and eventually find new foods that they enjoy.

  • Make Eating Easier - Toddlers do not have the same fine tuned motor skills that we do; they are still perfecting their hand eye coordination and learning how to hold things correctly. This can make mealtimes tricky, especially if your toddler becomes frustrated with the task and they struggle to get the food into their mouth themselves. You can make mealtimes easier for your toddler by using a divided plate. The edge of each section will help them to scoop or push the food onto a spoon, making it easier for them to then direct the food into their mouth. You will find a range of the best dinnerware sets available, many of which have divided sections specially designed for making mealtimes with toddlers easier.

  • Don’t Worry About Mess - When a lot of parents think about mealtimes with a toddler, they think about an endless amount of mess and cleaning up. Simply, toddlers are messy eaters and there is no getting away from that. Whether it’s breakfast or dinner, your toddler is bound to make a mess when they are eating. In fact, you will probably find more food on the floor and on their clothes than you will in their stomach. Mushie bibs are great for catching food and keeping the area around your toddler clean but mess is just part of toddler mealtimes and it should be embraced.

Develop Social Skills and Manners at Mealtimes

Though a mealtime with a toddler may often resemble a food fight, it’s the ideal time for them to learn social skills. It may look like they are getting more food on the floor than anywhere else, but mealtimes are one of the key times when a toddler learns from you. The constant reminders to sit calmly, to not throw food on the floor and to use cutlery are the building blocks of raising a child who knows how to eat at the table correctly. This is why developing social skills should be part of your mealtime routine. It’s the time when they learn what is, and what is not, appropriate at the dinner table.

  • Sitting Still - We can all agree that getting a toddler to sit still at mealtimes can feel like a losing battle, but it does eventually develop their ability to sit for extended periods of time. This is a skill that they will need in all areas of life, not just during mealtimes. Though you shouldn’t expect a toddler to sit still for too long, encouraging them to stay seated for 10 to 15 minutes whilst they are eating is beneficial.

  • Healthy Eating Habits - As part of their development, your toddler should learn healthy eating habits from a young age. This includes chewing your food properly, taking small bites, healthy portion sizes and stopping when you are full. These are all things that your toddler will learn by spending mealtimes with you. They will model their behaviour around food on what they are taught during mealtimes, which is why offering a balanced diet and serving up an array of fruits and vegetables is key.

  • Mealtime Manners - Mealtimes are the perfect time to teach your toddler good manners such as how to politely ask for something, as well as the importance of saying please and thank you. As they get older, you can teach them slightly more complex table manners that are also important to you. For example, you may want them to wait until everyone is served before they start eating. If you are consistent, your toddler will quickly learn how to act appropriately at mealtimes. This can make taking them to a restaurant or to eat at someone else’s house a less daunting experience.

  • Correct Communication - Sitting down to eat a meal is a good time to start teaching your toddler about communication, what is appropriate and when. Though shouting and laughing loudly are appropriate sometimes, they are not appropriate at the dinner table. Though banging on a drum and making a lot of noise is okay during playtime, banging utensils and making a lot of noise is not okay during dinnertime. During mealtimes, you can teach your toddler how to communicate correctly during a meal.

As you can see, mealtimes with a toddler should not just be about sitting down and finishing a meal. It’s a fantastic time to teach your child how to feed themselves, what appropriate behaviour at the dinner table looks like and manners. These are social skills they will continue to use throughout every stage of life. You are bound to experience some ups and downs when it comes to feeding your toddler. They could have a favourite food one day, only to refuse to eat it the next. They could have mastered feeding themselves with a spoon, only to spend the next mealtime throwing food on the floor and making a mess. The key is to be consistent and calm, and go with the flow.