Eating as a family is good for your toddler’s appetite and table manners, so how do you make shared mealtimes a success for everyone involved?
Unless you particularly like being chained to the kitchen from 4pm until 8pm every evening and dishing up an endless succession of meals as your nearest and dearest parade in and out, you’ll want to get your toddler used to eating with the family as soon as you possibly can. So how can you make communal mealtimes work for every member of the family?
The number one tip for successful mealtimes is to eat together. Sitting down with your little one is a must: not only does it give him a great attitude to food, teaching him that it’s fun and it’s sociable, but it's the best way for him to learn what to do as he gets plenty of role-modelling practice by copying you.
Try to schedule mealtimes to fit round the whole family. Toddlers often like an early dinner, while you might prefer to eat at 7pm, by which time he’ll be too hungry and tired to eat well. The solution is usually to compromise, perhaps by planning tea for around 5.30 to 6pm. A substantial mid-afternoon snack, like cheese on toast or a bowl of cereal, can keep your toddler going until dinner is served.
While that chunky high chair was perfect at the weaning stage, a seat that allows your child to join the rest of the family will help him feel more involved in mealtimes. Either choose a slimline high chair without a tray, that can push right up to the edge of the table, or swap to a booster seat that straps onto one of your ordinary dining chairs.
Lay a place setting for your toddler alongside yours – close enough for you to help him mop up spills and shovel food into his mouth. Make mealtimes easier (and more fun) for your child by making sure he has toddler-friendly cutlery, a plastic beaker and a colourful place mat.
To make family mealtimes work, cut out all the peripheral distractions while you eat. So don’t watch TV, fiddle with the computer or check your phone during your meal as it will stop your toddler from focusing on his food, and on his vital job of watching and learning from you. He’ll also be easily distracted if you’re constantly getting up and down, so get everything organised before the meal (bibs, wipes, drinks etc) so you don’t have to keep leaping up mid-mouthful.
Eating the same food as you and his bigger brothers and sisters can encourage your child to eat well. You may have to adapt certain dishes depending on his age and tastes, for example by taking his serving of curry out of the pan before you add any salt or strong spices, but it's worth doing, and it also means fewer dirty pots to wash up. Likewise, serving your toddler and other family members from communal bowls and jugs in the middle of the table can help encourage a healthy appetite and provide him with a valuable early lesson in sharing and sociability.
Above all, make it fun. It'll take a while before family meals are stress-free, and yes, there will be plenty of thrills and spills along the way, but the golden rule is that food should be enjoyable. Accept that there will be mess, get the wipes out and a mat under his highchair to catch most of the grub, and just relax – children learn best when they’re not under pressure, so channel your inner calm, keep piling on the praise, and you’ll be on your way to positive family mealtimes.
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