By: Michaela Glusic, Toddler Directress at Montessori School of Lake Forest
Mealtime with Toddlers is one of my favorite parts of our Toddler school day routine. We are all gathered at a beautifully set table. Toddler-sized placemats hold real plates, glasses and napkins. To either side of the small plate is a small fork and spoon – the perfect size for little Toddler hands. Small porcelain dishes hold the food, each with its own serving utensil. To my left, a child’s small hands are tonging carrot sticks onto her plate, as from the other end of the table a voice can be heard saying: “More hummus please!”
Oh, the joys of mealtime! It’s a magical time. A fun time. A concerning time? A stressful time? The thought alone of your Toddler at mealtime doesn’t have to be stress-inducing. “What is your secret?” is a question I frequently hear. “How do you to get him to sit at the table without constantly getting up? What do you do when he throws food? How do you get him to eat his vegetables? What’s your magic?”
It may look like magic from the outside, but I can assure you, it most certainly is not. Toddlers thrive on the opportunity to be as independent as their environment allows. They also need to experience making choices and having set expectations and limits. You can create your own ‘magical’ mealtime by keeping these important Toddler needs in mind.
Encourage your child to be as independent as the environment allows
Arrange for your child to sit in a chair that allows him to directly sit at the table with you. A booster chair that can be secured to an adult chair, or a Stokke-like adjustable high chair are good choices which allow your Toddler to independently join you at the table for a meal and leave the table when finished. Allow your Toddler’s feet to rest on a surface rather than dangle so he feels relaxed, safe and confident.
Support your Toddler’s independence by storing child-sized dishes and utensils in a low cabinet or shelf. Allow your Toddler to set his space at the table himself. Allowing your child to actively participate in setting the table lays the ground work for your Toddler’s cooperative spirit at mealtime.
Sit and eat with your child
Your Toddler idolizes you. It is only natural for him to emulate the behaviors and actions he observes in you. Take advantage of this trait by modeling your table behavior expectations, such as staying seated while eating or tasting if not eating everything that is on your plate. When your child sees you eating your vegetables, he will be much more inclined to try them himself. Model how to push a fork into a piece of food, how to scoop food onto a spoon and how to wipe your hands and face with a napkin.
Clearly communicate your expectations of behavior at the dinner table
What behavior are you expecting from your Toddler at the dinner table? Know what is important to you and clearly communicate those expectations to your Toddler. These could be but are not limited to the following:
1. We stay in our chair during the meal.
2. We finish what is in our mouth before getting up.
3. When food is thrown, the meal is over.
4. The food served is what’s for breakfast/lunch/dinner. We taste the food we serve ourselves (but are not required to eat it).
5. We use a napkin for wiping food on our face or hands.
6. We sit properly in our chair facing the table and plate.
7. We use utensils to eat what is not finger food, such as pasta, soup or taco meat.
Think about what rules are important to you and your family to follow at the dinner table. Clearly communicate them to your child and give him reminders if needed. Be prepared to follow through with a consequence, when expectations after a reminder are not adhered to: “I see you are throwing your food. You are letting me know that you are done eating. You may clean up now.” Then have him clean up or offer your help to do so if he needs it. Stay calm in the process and remind him that he can try again at the next meal.
Prepare meals together
Engage your Toddler in helping you prepare the meal. Show him how to tear lettuce or cut carrots with a crinkle cutter. Or you can show him how to put a piece of ham and a slice of cheese on sandwich bread or take grapes off their stems. Having your child involved in the process of preparing the food gives him a sense of ownership over the meal. This sense of pride may translate into a confident and cooperative attitude at the table.
Serve food that is visually appealing
Toddlers are visual creatures. When food is prepared to look attractive, Toddlers are much more inclined to try it. Whether it is serving fruit or vegetables in attractive bowls, or rolling lunchmeat slices into small tubes, a beautiful presentation of the food will have your Toddler reaching for the serving tongs to put some on his plate.
Empower your Toddler by offering self-serve food
Put food into separate, small bowls with small serving tongs so your Toddler can practice putting his own food onto his plate. When offered a choice, Toddlers are empowered to assert their likes and are therefore more likely to try it or eat it what they choose. But remember to respect your Toddler’s decision of what he puts on his plate, tastes or eats, if any, as well as his decision on when to end his mealtime. Stay calm and trust your child to eat when he is hungry and stop when he is full.
Don’t allow for any distractions at the table
Don’t allow cell phones or other technology, toys or books to divert the focus from teaching your child how to engage in peaceful togetherness. Center your focus on the sensorial experience of the food: the smell, the look or colors, the texture, the taste of the food and just the enjoyment of being together and sharing a meal together.
Be patient and allow for lots and lots of practice
Creating a peaceful mealtime is a process. Be consistent in your expectations and limit setting. When your message about behavior expectations and limits stay the same, the easier it is for your Toddler to make good choices at the table.
Learning to be in control of one’s body and eating politely takes time, especially for a Toddler. Allow for lots of practice for these learned skills to develop. Be patient and trust the process.
In the end, sitting down and sharing a meal together is the fabric that connects us as a family. Enjoy this time of togetherness with conversation and sharing in the pleasure of food and each other’s company. Relax and enjoy the journey. A peaceful mealtime with your Toddler may just be around the corner.
As one of the premier Montessori schools in the nation and with a long-standing history of over 50 years in the community, the Montessori School of Lake Forest (MSLF) offers exceptional learning programs for children ages birth to 12 years. Program options range from half-day to full-day and year-round academic offerings. The school is home to a diverse student body, encompassing eight countries and more than 30 communities in the Chicagoland area. For more information, visit www.mslf.org.