"Sadie ... Sadie! Keep your elbows off the table!" Sound familiar? Many of us grew up in a time when reminders to chew with our mouths closed or keep the offending elbows clear of the table were common refrains. It was also a time when regular family meals, including Sunday night dinner at Grandma's, were standard practice.
Eating is a social activity that crosses all cultures. Sharing family meals is important for young children and provides them with nourishment, predictable routines, and critical opportunities for socialization. Family meals are also a valuable time for promoting cooperation and learning.
"Family meals play an important role in helping children learn good eating and life skills from their parents," says Dr. Karen Cullen, a behavioral nutritionist with the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine. "Parents need to turn off the television during meals and engage their children."
Infant and Baby Meals
The attention and care directed to infants in their first few months of life helps to establish positive orientation to the feeding experience. Infants learn that their parents will respond to their hunger cries. They are cuddled and fed and loved; nutrition and emotion become connected.
As babies grow and become more aware of their social environment, it's important to include them in mealtimes. This allows them to observe and learn good mealtime habits, both directly and indirectly. Because a young child's world revolves around the immediate family, table manners are modeled on those of family members.
Louise Lambert-Lagacé, a consulting dietitian in Montreal and author of Feeding Your Baby the Healthiest Foods: From Breast Milk to Table Foods, says, "Mealtime is a very social time. Children like to eat with people. It's not just about the right type of food."
Babies and toddlers should have a designated high chair or booster seat of their own. "Kids need structure to focus on a meal; their attention is really limited in early childhood," says Cara Cuddy, PhD, a child psychologist and director of the Pediatric Feeding Disorders program at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital for Rehabilitation. Having their own chairs makes it easier for children to feed themselves and encourages autonomy, a critical aspect of a toddler's development.
Before sitting down to eat, remove any potential distractions, such as toys. Also be sure that the television is turned off. Set clear and reasonable limits, keeping in mind the developmental stage of your child. Infants and toddlers, for example, love to explore with cause and effect, and have unrefined fine motor skills. You can be certain that some of their finger foods will be tossed over the side of the high chair as part of their scientific experimentation and as they begin to develop hand skills.