Gentle Parenting Ideas: Toddlers and Meals

June 1st, 2010 by Dionna | 19 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Healthy Living, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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This post is the third in a series about gentle parenting through potential power struggles with your toddler. Each post will give you ideas and examples for using love and logic to work through some fairly common parent/toddler areas of concern: brushing teeth, getting into the car seat, meals/eating, grocery shopping, diaper changes, and picking up toys. I welcome your gentle/respectful parenting ideas and feedback; thank you to everyone who has already contributed ideas.
2010-03-05 01

Ideas to Make Mealtime a Positive Experience

Make Dinner Pleasant and Comfortable: remember to make meals a relaxing time for your family. Save arguing and stressful conversations for later. Concentrate on sharing stories about everyone’s day, talking about the food and flavors, making plans for the coming week, etc. Additionally, you might rethink how you have your toddler sitting. If she is in a hard chair with her feet dangling, it might not be the most comfortable way to enjoy a meal.
For an extra fun dinner, add party hats and candlelight – an instant dinner party!

Let Toddlers Help: toddlers often love to help out, so let them have a part in meal selection and preparation. Take them to the farmers’ market and let them help you select fruits and vegetables. Let them do age appropriate tasks in the kitchen, and/or ask them to help set the table (they can put out napkins, silverware, etc.). Let go of any expectations of perfection – if all of the napkins land in the same chair, so be it! You can sort it out later.

Be Grazing Friendly/Small Portions: Toddlers don’t often need big meals, their body chemistry works better when they can graze throughout the day, eating small portions to keep their blood sugar stable. Don’t get hung up on having everyone in the family sit through the whole meal. If it is a constant struggle to get your toddler to sit for longer than 3 minutes, what do you win by having her stay unwillingly in her chair – resentful and unhappy? Give grazing a try. And don’t worry, your toddler will learn to sit for longer periods of time eventually.

Make Room for Baby: set a place at the table for your toddler’s favorite baby doll or stuffed animal. Let her “feed” the baby from an empty bowl/spoon.

Dinner Music: let your toddler select some dinner music from a few options you give her. Talk about the music during dinner (how does it make you feel? What instruments can you hear? Can you hear the beat?).

Food is Fun: eating can be a fun experience1 all by itself. Let your little one try chopsticks! 2 Skewer your kids’ veggies and fruit (with toddler-appropriate tips, like a chopstick or popsicle stick). Use dips and wraps. Try cookie cutters out on a variety of foods (sandwiches, pancakes, omelettes). Try serving a meal made entirely of one color (“Look – we’re eating a yellow breakfast! An omelet with yellow squash, yellow bell peppers, and yellow tomatoes, served with a side of golden potatoes.”)

Don’t Force Feed Them: similar to the suggestion about grazing above, please do not force your toddler to clean her plate. Don’t withhold privileges until he has taken a bite or finished his plate. It’s not even necessary to tell them “good job!” for eating all of their veggies. You might thank them for trying everything, if that is important to you. Research has shown that forcing children to finish food interferes with a child’s ability to tell when they are full and their development of self-control.

Talk About the Food: Americans eat entirely too fast. We don’t take time to savor our food, much less think about it. Make it a practice to start talking about the food you are eating. Talk about the food groups, what each food does for our bodies, how it grows, where it comes from. Perhaps talking about your food will motivate you to improve your eating habits. It can also lead to a lifetime of healthy eating habits and attitudes toward food for your children.

Offer Healthy Options: remember YOU hold the keys to your own destiny when it comes to eating healthy. If you stock your cabinets with chips, cookies, soda, and crap, chances are your kids will opt for the crap more often than you would like. But kids will eat healthy food when they are presented with healthy options! Resist the urge to buy that bag of cookies and reach for a bag of apples instead. It is your responsibility to teach your children healthy habits. They cannot do it alone. 3

Don’t Stress: most importantly, don’t stress – yourself or your toddler. Continue to offer healthy choices throughout the day – your toddler will eat! If you  maintain a relaxed attitude around food, there will be no reason to get into a power struggle over it.

What ideas do you have to help make eating a good experience? Please share them in the comments.

  1. For another great post on this topic, see Grow With Graces: 8 Tips for Making Food Fun for Kids
  2. And please don’t force utensils too early. There’s really nothing wrong with using fingers, and your child will eventually learn how to use a spoon. There’s no test to pass!
  3. And let’s be honest – you can’t get angry with your child for wanting to eat unhealthy foods if you are buying them.

19 Responses to:
"Gentle Parenting Ideas: Toddlers and Meals"

  1. Colin Wee   superparents_au

    It does sound much less American when you focus on the food, doesn’t it? I remember too often wolfing down a burger and a large soda with college buddies. Or skipping the meal altogether if we didn’t really have the regular ‘meal plan’ at the school cafeteria. I like it that you say ‘talk about the food’. My family does that a lot, and the kids have grown up with some good interest in what we cook for them. And now they’re getting into the whole MasterChef reality tv cooking competition – it’s really cool to see. BTW, I’ve put a link from my post Kids Cooking to this article. Cheers, Colin

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thanks Colin! I think talking about the food would also be a lot easier if more of it originated locally/from farmers’ markets. We just went to a dairy farm and Kieran was pretty fascinated to see how cow milk gets from cow to table.

  2. I’m so glad you mentioned not forcing utensils. When I had 1 year olds the daycare pretty much only fed them foods that required utensils (yogurt, applesauce, etc.) and gave them adult spoons. None of the kids could do it and it was a frustrating meal for all involved. On the other hand, sometimes they’d bring in graham crackers with yogurt/apple sauce and the kids could scoop and dip with those. That made things a lot easier.

    When I worked in a daycare where the owner actually saw the kids for more than 10 seconds every day we had color meals a lot, like “OH LOOK! ALL OUR FOOD IS YELLOW!” and the kids liked that. Once the kids got older we had a lot of kids who didn’t like anything we had, so I’d ask them to take a no thank you bite, just to get them to try it, sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. Most of the time they’d wander into the kitchen after nap and tell me they were hungry so we’d have a snack then. Sometimes they’d just eat lunch leftovers. haha

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      It would be totally frustrating to be forced to eat with something that didn’t feel natural! I like the color meal idea – adding!

  3. Daist   TooTooDaisy

    Our bear is 3, and one thing that is fun for him is going with us to the farmers’ market so he can see us selecting what we’ll be eating, and we can take his suggestions (these days it’s strawberries). We look at flowers vendors are selling, and listen for our favorite busker, generally have a relaxing morning there.

    Another fun one is to suggest a dinner party. We wear hats, use our fancy napkins, and light a candle. This becomes a big event for him that he can look forward to more than plain old dinner.

    Also with you on not forcing a clean plate — I have been encouraging him to simply leave anything he dislikes on his plate instead of following his impulse to toss it off his plate and on to the table though, on the grounds of politeness.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I love your ideas about picking out food from the farmers’ market and making dinner a party! Adding them!!

  4. I love this post. Aodhan is just getting his head into Toddler gear, and all of these ideas are ripe for our family. Luckily, at the moment, he loves mealtime. I really dig the idea of grazing. I think it works well for him. Canadians, like Americans, are fast eaters…I am so glad that we have had the last three years in Europe, where I have learned to take so much time and care over food. I really hope to bring this back with me next month when we return to Canada – and pass it onto Aodhan.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      We go through phases – sometimes Kieran is really into food and meals are fun, sometimes he eats like a bird and we barely see him at mealtime. We try to roll with the punches, but I often have to stifle my inner “dad” voice who wants to tell him to sit down ;)

  5. Melodie   bfmom

    I love that you suggest buying fruit for snacks instead of cookies. Too many parents have come to rely on processed food snacks and I am sure it is what is contributing to childhood obesity and poor nutrition. I love these ideas. Even though I’ve gone through two toddler phases still have some toddler daycare charges and it is so easy to forget how to make meal time pleasant sometimes when there are extra bodies at the table acting like toddlers/little kids do!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thanks Melody!We do sweet treats in our house, but not every day and when we have them they are a special after dinner treat. During the day snacks are generally yogurt, fruit, cheese, pretzels, nuts & dried berries, etc. It’s true though – if I have it in the house, it can cause problems. If it’s not an option, then there usually isn’t any drama.

      • I so agree. After Easter Aellyn *knew* there was candy in the house and she’d just stand by the pantry and cry. It is much easier to not have it in the house and only let it be a treat and Gma and Gpas.

        Aellyn eats so much fruit it is scary. I worry sometimes that she doesn’t like veggies as much but she’s getting plenty of fruit.

  6. kalamitykristen

    I do talk sternly about food to my son, mainly because I can’t stand wasting food but also because he might be the world’s worst sleeper.
    We co-slept for about 16 months & he woke throughout those months many, many times during the night, every night. Now he sleeps in a bed next to mine & he does sleep better, but I am paranoid that if he doesn’t eat enough, he won’t sleep. It seems to be a pattern.
    He is now 2 years old & is finally sleeping through the night, most nights. He’s a strange child; he resists food & sleep as often as he can. So if I know he’s *got* to be hungry & he is resisting food, I sit & talk seriously about it. I hope it doesn’t harm him, but I can’t let him get crazy/sleepless because he refuses to eat, nor am I comfortable throwing away food every time I try to feed him. . .

  7. Sheryl   sheryljesin

    We gear mealtime to our two year old son Dylan’s schedule. That means we eat an early lunch and an early dinner. It may not be very sophisticated to eat lunch at 11:45 and dinner at 5:30 but eating early meals before Dylan is tired makes mealtime much more enjoyable for us. Also, we try to always eat meals together as a family. This has definitely helped Dylan learn about table manners and has given him exposure to lots of different types of foods and flavours.
    We don’t stress about where Dylan sits – sometimes it’s in his highchair, sometimes it’s in his booster and sometimes it’s on my lap! On the days I’m at work we both enjoy the extra snuggling involved when he sits and eats on my lap :)

  8. Dionna, I love this series. It’s a great idea (totally wish I had thought of it!). I will be passing this one on to a couple people I know who have pickier kiddos.

    I’ve got an area I could use some help with- getting dressed! Everett loves jammies, being naked, taking his clothes off through out the day, etc. I don’t require him getting dressed right away every day since there is not always a reason. But when he does need to get dressed it often takes forever! I try to make it a game by humming a song and having him race to get dressed as fast as he can. He loves to race to do things, but this is wearing out as we do it so often. Any other ideas???

  9. We play ‘guess that taste’ or ‘who can finish their vetoes first’ and have a rule, ‘you don’t have to eat, but you do have to sit and spend family time together’. But I think THE most effective thing we’ve ever done is have a ‘taste everything’ rule!! My boys sniff and lick it and have to have a bite, they can spit it out if they don’t like it, BUT have to try it! they also know it takes repeat exposure to really decide if you like something and likes change (we told them at least 17 tomes, not sure where I came up with that figure, but they can all tell you it!)! We are lucky, our 3 have mostly been good eaters, and any fussiness has been short lived, but I think the above strategies have helped!

  10. Fran Magbual   BabiesOnline

    I guess it’s not too late to start with a lot of these ideas, but I wish I’d had some of these suggestions when my kids were babies! I agree with not forcing utensils too early since both my husband and I come from cultures that do not frown on eating with the fingers…even as adults, but my daughter had her own ideas. When she was 8 months old I was feeding her and had to get up to do something. I set the spoon down and turned away for a minute. She picked up the spoon and started feeding herself and wouldn’t let me spoonfeed her anymore after that day. It would get quite messy, but she’d get enough into her mouth and that’s how she wanted to eat, so I let her. :-)

  11. Christie - Childhood 101   childhood101

    I remember reading that it is best to evaluate how much a toddler has eaten over the course of a week, not the meal or even the day. They can be so fickle, after all :)

    P.S. Great minds think alike LOL

  12. Veronica   crunchyvtmommy

    I love these ideas. My son is almost a year old and already helping.
    The other day he grabbed a laundry basket and started putting clothes in it. Was fabulous! I hope he keeps it up.

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