Dinner drama: 5 ways to improve toddler meal times

A Fit Mess
afitmess
March 29, 2017

As most parents know, feeding toddlers can be challenging to say the least. I have to laugh when I think back to all the times when the girls happily ate the blended green beans and pea pudding I placed before them as babies. Matt and I used to get a kick out of how much they ate and the variety of foods they enjoyed (sardines were always a family favorite).

 

Now that my kids are older (the girls will be 4 this summer!) they have more defined preferences and tastes. As such, it can be difficult to get them to try new things and to incorporate the same kind of variety in their diets as when they were babies.

 

But as we all know: toddlers are completely independent, know exactly what’s best for them, and can make their own decisions. Period. Or as Madison likes to inform me, “No. I won’t listen to you, mommy!”

 

All joking aside, toddlers can be quite finicky when it comes to food, making their meals difficult at times. Over the last several months, we’ve incorporated a few things that have worked really well for our family and has made meal time easier and more enjoyable. I wanted to share these tips with you in case you, too, struggle with this as a parent.

 

I should probably premise this with stating that I am absolutely NOT an expert at parenting (far from it!) and some days these methods work and sometimes they don’t work at all. But we try to stay consistent with our practices and have found that they really help. As always, I would love your thoughts and suggestions. I want this blog to be a place where we can learn from one another (myself included!).

 A Fit Mess

1.  We sit together during our meal.

While this doesn’t always happen, we try to sit at the table for most of our meals. The girls and I have breakfast together almost every day (Matt leaves for work before any of us are awake), and they eat lunch at school most days. Dinners are spent eating together as a family. Some days Matt works late and will eat after us. Other times the girls are hungry as soon as I get home so I’ll prepare their dinner early and sit with them while they eat.

Why this is important to us: I don’t have many memories of eating around the table as a family when I was younger (mostly because my mom got sick when I was still little and my dad was trying to juggle everything). My dad cooked as often as he could, but we also had relatives make meals for us, various caregivers tended to us, and we ate a lot of prepared food. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I truly appreciated the act of sitting around a dinner table. Food connects a family in many ways. It’s a chance for us to come together and enjoy a meal. It allows us to talk and to share details of our day. It’s extremely important to me that we continue this tradition as a family so it’s definitely a priority in our house.

2.  Our kids eat what we eat.

For too long I was preparing items that I knew the girls would eat and got into the habit of making them “their” meal and then preparing something else for myself and Matt. I hated when I made them something and they wouldn’t eat it. I’d then run through the alternative items I could make them. The problem with this (other than the fact that I felt like a short-order cook) was that the girls weren’t being exposed to different tastes, textures, and smells. Not to mention all the vitamins and nutrients they missed. Sure, part of the issue was that I let them run the show. I worried they would go hungry so I tried to make them things I knew they’d actually eat. I eventually realized how crazy this was – my kids would NEVER go hungry and I needed to show a bit of tough love. Nowadays, the girls eat what we eat and I try to limit the items I prepare for them.  Sure, there are things that I make for them that I don’t often eat with my meals (buttered toast, popcorn, pasta) but for the most part they eat some version of what we are eating (protein, veggies, and starches).

 

3.  No toys or TV at the table.

Like a lot of toddlers, my kids can easily be distracted. While we try to limit their TV time in general, we definitely don’t let them watch TV during meals. And toys are to be kept away from the dinner table until they’re done eating. Meal time is not play time. This keeps the attention on the meal and the focus on your food. I’m trying to work on this as well since I often eat lunch at my desk and will inevitably skim emails and read while I eat.

 

4.  Keep portions small.

I used to load up the girls’ plates with a variety of food at once and I’ve recently transitioned to a different approach. Now I give them a little bit of food (protein, starch, and veggie) and I’ve noticed that they end up eating more than if I piled the food on their plates. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why this works so well, but I think having a smaller portion encourages the girls to eat. And if they finish something and want seconds then I will give them more. Having smaller portions is also helpful if I want them to try something new (a vegetable, a tiny bit of meat, or something I haven’t prepared in a while). Additionally, I think sometimes my kids can get overwhelmed with choices if there is too much on their plate. And limiting the amount of food is a good way to check whether they are actually full or just eating for the sake of eating.

 

5.  Save fruit for the end.

My kids are fruit fanatics. If given the choice, they would eat fruit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ve started to wait until the girls have eaten their protein and sampled their veggies before offering fruit. This encourages them to fill up on the important foods before going for the fruit. I know some parents who recommend serving food in courses so that their kids will at least try certain items, but Matt and I don’t eat like that personally so it doesn’t really make sense for us to introduce that style in our home.

 

Additional notes:

  1. We are snackers. The girls really like to graze and I think this is typical toddler behavior. If the girls say they are hungry, I will always offer them food. I know some parents discourage snacking, but I don’t agree with this. Kids are extremely active, have fast metabolisms, and process food differently than adults. Their nutritional and caloric needs are not the same as ours.
  2. Some days my kids will have less or more of an appetite. This is something I try not to worry about. As I said above, my kids will never go hungry. I don’t force them to eat if they don’t want to and I don’t deny them extra servings (within reason).
  3. We talk a lot about what food does to/for your body. We really enjoy describing the benefits of the food we eat. For example, we’ll say that meat contains protein and makes you strong or sweet potatoes give you energy and vitamin C. Before eating something the girls will ask us, “Is this good for your body?” which always makes me smile.

 

I would love to know what your thoughts are on this. Have you made any changes to meal time that has helped?

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