Toddlers at the table


How should you handle toddler table challenges? Scott Cowley, an early childhood education teacher at Toronto’s Centennial College, dishes on how to deal with common issues that can crop up at the dinner table.

My child hardly eats anything at dinnertime.

Toddler appetites are naturally smaller than they were in the first year, when babies grow fast. And while adults often prefer for dinner to be the biggest meal of the day, young children may reverse that preference. “Find out what they’ve eaten, and when, during the day,” suggests Cowley. “If they’ve had a good breakfast and lunch, they just might not be hungry for dinner.” Simple, familiar finger foods may appeal more than traditional “dinner foods” at the end of a tired toddler’s day. But, in general, you can trust your child’s appetite — she knows how much food she needs.

My child plays with his food and makes an awful mess.

Dumping, throwing and “mucksing” are part of a child’s exploration of the world, but that doesn’t mean you have to allow it with food, says Cowley. “When a child purposefully dumps something and then looks over at you to see if you’re watching, he is testing his boundaries and limits.” You, on the other hand, are teaching him, gently, how people act at mealtime. Start with modelling, says Cowley. “Sit down with kids and eat when they do. Show them how to use their utensils and what you do with food.” Expect young diners to get messy in the normal course of eating — they will use their hands, or have mishaps with their spoons, and a little food exploration is part of learning.

He won’t sit still through the meal!

“Toddlers are full of energy and have short attention spans, so it’s not realistic to expect that they sit for long periods of time,” says Cowley. Still, you can do things to help them sit long enough to eat. “Look at what comes before,” he says. “An activity that lets them move around a lot and use up some energy might help them settle down at mealtime.” Consistent but reasonable expectations are helpful. Start with what your child is capable of now, and build from there. “If you always expect toddlers to stay in the high chair until they are finished, or say for 15 minutes, it will become routine,” he says. Finally, have something safe and quiet your child can do nearby if she is finished but you are not, to buy you a bit more time for your own meal.

He insists on feeding himself, even though he can’t manage a spoon.

Kids at this stage are asserting their new-found autonomy and it’s important to allow them to experience success at feeding themselves. That said, most kids will settle for a compromise, says Cowley: “Have something they can feed themselves, like bread or frozen peas, while you handle the messier foods.”