Toddlers and Preschoolers at the Table
Toddlers will continue to experiment as they discover the world of self-feeding. That means that the transition from finger feeding to using a spoon can be a long and messy process. Using child-sized utensils and plates help reduce accidents and mess, however, this is a phase when parents can benefit from ample doses of patience, good humor, and a sturdy vinyl tablecloth under the high chair!
"The precautions, however, should never go as far as excluding the mess-prone toddler from the family dinner table," report Susan Baker, MD and Roberta Henry, MD, authors of Parents' Guide to Nutrition: Healthy Eating from Birth Through Adolescence. "This will make it impossible for the child to learn how to behave at meals, the natural way, through example."
A relaxed and affectionate approach to mealtime helps create positive attitudes. Table rules can be explained before the meal, keeping in mind the ages of the children, and gentle reminders given if needed during the meal. Two- and three-year-old children are able to understand simple, clear expectations. Parents can reinforce very basic rules, particularly by modeling good behavior:
- Food is to stay on your plate.
- Eat with a spoon or fork. (Sandwiches and other finger foods are an exception.)
- Everyone sits at the table to eat.
- Use "please" and "thank you."
Set a predetermined ending to the meal to allow for preschoolers' short attention spans, but be consistent in your expectations. Mealtime should be a happy sociable event, not a long drawn out process where children are encouraged to eat "just one more bite." Some parents become so concerned about how much food their kids are eating they slip into the "let them wander while they eat" approach to mealtime. You've seen these kids, clutching a banana in one hand while they toddle around the room. When we did we start allowing this to happen? Food is to be eaten while seated. Period.