Everyone wants a perfect gentleman at the table, even if he is just 2 years old. I know I don’t want to be the mom whose children stand instead of sit at the table. No one likes that sort of attention. Some days none of these rules will apply, but on other day some of these will come in handy.
- Be reasonable. A toddler would much rather stand on his chair, watch the trajectory of peas, bite the head of the straw off and make music with a spoon and fork than sit like a well-mannered adult on a table making polite conversation. Any improvement is a reason to pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a glass of wine. Be reasonable to yourself, and your baby.
- Set the stage. Ask for a baby chair even if your baby is not used to it. Without too much preparing, place the baby in the chair. Don’t watch like a hawk, just play it cool. If a baby chair is unavailable, place a few pillows on the chair to raise the level of the chair for your baby. We tried this with Sam and he loves feeling all grown up.
- Avoid the power struggle. Sam sat in the the chair for precisely 5 minutes before wanting to sit in my lap. I try not to enforce anything when we are out, as it only leads to further tantrums. After a failed gentle-yet-firm attempt to make him sit at the chair, I took him in my lap. You may feel like these are baby steps, but in the toddler universe 5 minutes are equivalent to man’s first step on the moon (Also, I prefer to be non-confrontational in public!)
- Don’t negotiate. It’s fine to encourage kids to “try one bite” but don’t fall into the negotiating trap. Prepare and serve healthy meals and let them decide what to eat. If your toddler asks for candy, simply say, “We don’t have any candy.” Then present two healthy snack alternatives to choose from. Even a child who mourns the lack of candy will still enjoy the sense of control from deciding which healthy snack to eat.
- Order dry eats. If you don’t want messy then order food wisely. I would not recommend banana shakes and chocolate cakes, no no. Focaccia, bread sticks, noodles, fried rice, nuts, veggies, cutlets, quiche are all more sensible options. Keep water and other drinks at bay so that your child can focus on the food. If you know that you have a fussy eater at hand, carry a box of juice or his favourite milk shake in the bag at all times. Do not insist that everything in the plate must be finished – Children’ s appetites are different from day to day, so don’t force them to eat up.
- Instil love for food. Let your child watch you cook and, as they get older, let them help. This way, children can develop a sense of enjoying food and learn that eating is fun. Sam loves to watch me cook and loves serving us make-believe tea and biscuits in the evening!
- Make the meal important. If you take phone calls or get distracted during the meal, you send out signals that mealtime is not important. Your mealtime behaviour will be modelled by your child, so make it a happy and heathy time for the family with positive associations.
Here is an amazing guide on setting the right expectations at mealtime by Betsy, who is a renowned child development specialist, parent educator, and author of Just Tell Me What To Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents.
- A two-year-old child may actually be able to sit longer than a four-year-old child, as he will be a slower and more distracted eater, entertained by having everyone there together. Consider five minutes a success.
- It is reasonable to expect a three-year-old child to sit at a dinner table for five to ten minutes. Some will have much greater staying power than others.
- A four year-old should make it to ten to fifteen minutes.
- A five year-old usually can last fifteen to twenty minutes, and the same is true for a six year-old.
Needless to say, the length of the stay will depend upon variables such as how tired the child may be, what the day was like, and what is next on the agenda.
No mealtime is perfect. Sometimes you, and sometimes your partner will crib about the food, take a call, talk with your mouthful. It is ok. Take a deep breath. All these rules aside, it is more important for a mealtime to be happy even if it is not perfect. Eventually your baby will learn, haven’t we all? Just do not underestimate your effort.