Preschoolers can also be encouraged to use napkins (just like Mom and Dad), chew with their mouths closed, and to be considerate of other people at the table. That means not reaching in front of other people, politely requesting and passing food, and listening while others talk.
Establish a routine that works best for your family's job, school, and activity schedule. Try to make a goal of eating at least three to five meals together each week, whether morning, noon, or evening. One of my favorite observations of family mealtime was of a family with 18-month-old twins and a two-year-old sibling. When I dropped by their home at lunchtime, Mom and Dad were seated at the kitchen table surrounded by three high chairs, all five of them enjoying a twenty-minute lunch together in spite of their hectic lifestyle. If mealtimes are relaxed and pleasant, children will want to behave so that they can be a part of this important family time. Families that tune into television instead of each other at mealtime miss important opportunities to talk and connect.
Dealing with Mealtime Misbehavior
When children demonstrate unacceptable behaviors, respond to them in a consistent manner, much as you would in any other situation. Start out with a gentle reminder to stop the offending behavior. After a second or third incident at the table, a child should be silently escorted to another room until others have finished eating.
Parents can capitalize on the many learning experiences mealtime offers:
- Encourage children to participate by helping to set the table. Children can learn matching and counting skills in a relaxed, enjoyable way.
- Recognize different food likes and dislikes but expect children to taste each food served.
- Make mealtimes fun by letting children design their own special placemats.
- Make a collage of their favorite foods.
- Consider having meals where you use special dishes or glasses. Use it as an opportunity to reinforce manners and table etiquette. Even if you're just eating macaroni and cheese, your kids will enjoy the special focus.
- Encourage discussion at the table. "What was your favorite part about the meal?" "What did you like best about today?"
Don't forget to praise your toddler or preschooler for his or her achievements during mealtime. "You did a great job using your fork," "Thanks for listening," and "Hey, you remembered to use your napkin! Good for you," are always important for your young eater to hear. In no time at all, your kids will be ready for dinner at Grandma's or the neighborhood restaurant. Bon appetit!