Some parents and especially some grandparents (who have rose-tinted memories of the past) can have unrealistic expectations about how a young child should behave at the table. Children are naturally curious and often find it hard to sit still for long periods during a meal. That’s not to say that children cannot learn to eat and share meals in a civilised manner.
The gross and fine motor control required to scoop food onto a spoon, put it to the mouth and eat the food off the spoon is difficult and may not develop until after 18 months.
Finger foods make early self-feeding much easier. Soft finger foods, like grated cheese and the whites of hard boiled eggs, really help to develop your toddler’s taste and ability to cope with and enjoy new foods. Offer foods that she can pick up in a pincer grip (between her fingers and the opposable thumb), such as sweetcorn and peas, and try to keep calm and relaxed around mealtimes. If your baby is eating something with a runny consistency, such as homemade soup, you can let her have her own spoon or let her dip toast soldiers in it. You can also spear soft foods like cooked carrot onto a fork and let her practice and learn about bringing the fork with the food to her mouth, but don’t be disheartened if she prefers to use her fingers. All these eating skills and tasting experiences are valuable and hands are the easiest ‘utensils’ for your baby to use!
Don’t make mealtimes a battleground. When toddlers drop food, squash food and generally make a mess, they are not being naughty. However, your toddler may learn to throw food if she gets a reaction from you, especially if otherwise you are absorbed with your smartphone and ignoring her. So try not to react if she drops or throws her food. Instead, chat to her, so she is getting plenty of attention and praise before any throwing occurs!
To make things easier on your frayed nerves, it can be a good idea to put down a wipe-clean cloth under your toddler’s highchair. The more calm and relaxed you are, the more relaxed your toddler will be around food and mealtimes.
One important way that children learn is by ‘modelling’. By watching you pick up and peel a tangerine or dip a toast soldier into a runny boiled egg, your toddler will absorb and learn unconsciously. With the use of her ‘mirror neurons’ (the connections in her brain that allow her to learn through copying), your amazing little eater will mentally rehearse new physical skills even as she watches you.
To develop the myriad physical skills required to feed themselves, children flourish in a relaxed environment. This gives them time and space to improve their physical dexterity with knives, forks, spoons, chopsticks and fingers. These gross and fine motor skills will seem normal and important to your toddler as they share a meal with their family. If every time your toddler eats, she is left alone and ignored in a highchair ,she will lose the rich and loving environment that helps her to learn to love and respect food.
You will also be able to slowly and warmly introduce manners that you and your family think are important at the table – for example, asking the person next to you if they would like more water before you refill your own glass. Children pick up on these habits and the behaviour you would like to see at the table needs to be modelled by you, preferably during lots of relaxed and warm family meals.
‘The family that eats together, stays together’ might seem trite but sitting with your toddler and talking to her at mealtimes is really valuable. Ideally, you should try and eat with your toddler so that you model good eating habits and a warm and positive attitude to food.
Try not to see your toddler’s mealtimes as an opportunity to check your emails. It’s easier said than done, we know, but time spent together eating and chatting really does pay dividends.
When your baby is first starting solids and working towards eating three meals a day, it is perhaps not realistic that you will be able to share each meal with her as you may be helping her a lot with her food (and she will eat slowly). However, as she becomes a toddler and moves to three meals a day, try to stop, slow down, put away your smartphone and just sit and chat with her while she eats. Not only is it important that she is supervised if she’s eating in case she chokes, but it becomes a good habit for both of you – time to share the moment.
If you can’t manage it all the time, make a promise to yourself that you will all have your Sunday lunch together around a table. A family table is a vital piece of equipment and if your toddler is using a high chair, bring her to the table to share the meal too.
As she grows, mealtimes become a time during which your child will talk to you about all sorts of things that she’s thinking about and experiencing. Children also ask surprisingly deep philosophical questions at the table, and learn the arts of conversation, debating and telling a funny story!
Sharing meals are about so much more than just eating and taking in ‘fuel.’ Sharing food, whether in cultural and religious feasts like Passover or Christmas Day, or simply Sunday lunch around the table, is a deeply important opportunity for your toddler’s social, emotional and even physical development.
Toddlers rely in part on the ‘social referencing’ of their parents to understand everything, including food. Facial expressions are key in all this. In our evolutionary past, if a parent was disgusted as she tasted a new berry and spat it out, that was helpful to the child who watched and learned. The facial expression of disgust is so powerful that toddlers don’t need language to understand it – so bear this in mind when you think about what your face communicates about food. Try to be positive, open and adventurous in your eating behaviour to allow your toddler to model your positive behaviour.
Food should be a joy and an adventure, and we should be keen to try a wide range of food and enjoy a healthy diet. Try to avoid passing on your personal hang-ups and prejudice about food, even if it’s talking endlessly about ‘healthy food’ or calorie-counting. If you are faddy, try to encourage your toddler to try new foods with you. If you are happy to eat a pint of prawns with the shells on, big shiny mushrooms or a bowl of mussels, she may well be, too!