Confession. Family mealtimes at my house can feel chaotic. While I’m well aware of the importance of the family meal, it often feels flat out burdensome! My wiggly toddlers try to leave their seats at least 100 times. When they’re in their seats, I watch their heads bob up and down as they alternate between sitting and standing. I find myself saying over and over “sit down on your booties please!!” until I’m red in the face. And in a bad mood (sigh).
Mealtime power struggles are real. But I know I shouldn’t give up. Family meals are worth the effort.
Studies show that children who regularly eat dinner with their families have lower rates of obesity, report closer relationships with their caregivers, are less susceptible to substance abuse, and perform better academically.
Beyond nourishment, the family meal appears to hold a powerful role in healthy mental development.
Practically speaking though, what steps might help make toddler mealtime feel more like fun adventures vs crazy, head-spinning adventures?
After realizing my approach could use improvement, I decided to be proactive. I did a bit of research, and set up some goals. I share with you my plan of attack!
Getting Into Position
Kids who are seated appropriately are more likely to stay seated and engaged for mealtime. Ergonomics matter. Often times, after kids outgrow their highchairs, they’re transitioned to chairs that are too big. Can you imagine sitting in a GIGANTIC chair? It would be super hard for anyone to focus!
Invest in a good booster seat and consider keeping children in their boosters for as long as possible. Good support includes hips, knees and ankles bent at 90 degrees. Avoid letting their legs dangle (I am guilty of this!). Allow their feet to rest on a small chair or block to improve stability.
Routine & Realistic Goals
Children do best with predicable patterns. By creating a mealtime routine, they’ll learn what to expect. Eventually meals will start to run more smoothly. Perhaps begin your routine before the meal. Allow your child to set the stage by helping with food preparation or setting the table. When possible, serve meals at scheduled times in a designated area away from distractions (goodbye electronics!).
Now that you’re all seated, how long should you expect your toddler to stay seated? A reasonable goal is 3-4 minutes for every year of life. For instance, a practical expectation for a 3 year old would be about 10 minutes seated at the table.
I have to remind myself that the goal of the family meal is not necessarily for children to clean their plates. I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve said the words “just take 2 more bites!” more times than I can count. This usually backfires. My toddlers try even harder to escape. Besides creating an unpleasant environment, these behaviors can negatively affect a child’s relationship with food.
A more effective approach might be to clarify mealtime expectations for yourself and your child prior to mealtime. During a calm moment, share that meals are not only about eating. Make it clear that whether they choose to eat or not, you expect them to join. Highlight on the experience of togetherness.
Embrace The Struggle
Like everything worth working for, there will be challenges. And the challenges will continue to change. Before I know it, my toddlers will grow to be teens with even more attitude, then adults with busy schedules. My hope is that by cultivating and prioritizing togetherness now, we can help foster a connectedness and sense of stability that will last a lifetime.