The children have set the table, and now they are seated quietly with their napkins in their laps ready to eat. Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly what it looks like… Regardless, how do you get from preparing the environment with the appropriate furniture, dishes, and utensils to a successful and enjoyable mealtime experience? Read on! I’ll give you the secrets.
- Identify the behaviors you want to see and teach them. Just because you have a beautifully set up cabinet with perfectly sized forks and spooks or the perfect little table does not mean children know how to use those things. We have to teach them. For us, this means walking W back and forth from the cabinet to the table for every meal and every snack, guiding him to get his fork/spoon and a napkin, and then helping him to put it in the appropriate place. Lately, he has been getting a spoon independently, tossing it onto the table, and then sitting down in his chair to eat. We’ve got a ways to go, but that indicates to me that he is starting to pick up on the process. M usually fills in the gaps for him anyway and brings him whatever he forgot. This same approach applies to clean up. Teach what you want to see and then reinforce.
- Know your limits. Identifying your own limits allows you to provide clear expectations for mealtime behaviors. For example, W is allowed one more try after throwing a utensil on the floor. I pick it up ONCE, and I tell him “this stays on the table.” If he does it again, I sign “all done” and help him out of his chair signaling that the meal is over. Sometimes there are tears, but sometimes he really was finished and just needed help with a more appropriate way to communicate that. We have to be in charge, y’all. Otherwise, we will be picking that fork off the floor 15 times each meal. Be the parent!
- Let it go. We spend so much time shopping, preparing, cooking, and cleaning. When little ones refuse to eat, it can be incredibly frustrating. Our responsibility is to provide healthy food which will nourish their little bodies and to expose them to as much variety as we can. After that, it is out of our control. Choosing foods you know your children will eat and serving them alongside new foods is a good way to balance the familiar with exploration. Also, dinner is dinner. We work hard enough as it is. The last thing we need to be doing is heading back to the kitchen to make another meal because some little person is refusing to eat. There is another meal or snack around the corner, and our little ones can catch up then. Plus, it’s from outcomes that children learn valuable lessons. What are we teaching them if we continue to make new meals when they refuse to eat the one we have already prepared? Fulfill your responsibility, fulfill it well, and then let your children do the rest.
- Keep it contained. Mealtime should happen at the table. Period. This means there should not be any little feet walking around while big feet follow them trying to put food into their mouths. When we leave the table, it signals we are finished. We have to allow our children the same opportunity to communicate this as well. For children this happens through more of a trial and error approach until they figure it out. However, this is an effective way to corral that mealtime wanderer and make mealtime a more positive, enjoyable, (and neater) experience. Bottoms in the chair and feet on the floor. Full stop.
- Set high yet realistic expectations. Yes, you are dining with small children, and they are capable of so much. They can eat neatly, and they don’t have to end up covered in food; they can drink from a cup instead of pouring it on the floor; they can eat with the appropriate utensil and return it to the appropriate spot on their place mat when they are finished; they can enjoy a variety of foods while still having preferences. Children will rise to meet us, and they are usually capable of so much more than we initially expect. Give your children a chance to surprise you, but remember to first teach them how.
Now that the framework is in place for a healthy meal all that is missing is the food! I strive to expose M and W to a variety of foods, but we still have our favorites. Here are a few snack recipes that are constantly moving through our kitchen.
Finally, in the spirit of full transparency and irony, I would like to share that one of the evenings I was working on this post W threw every. single. thing. from his plate onto the floor. Piece by piece people. So, just in case you got the (very) wrong impression that things run smoothly over here without the slightest incident, I would like to reassure that I am right here in the trenches with you.
Whether it was a new recipe, an item for your kitchen, or a mealtime tip, I hope that you found this helpful and that miracles will begin happen in your kitchen. Remember that Small Hands Big Steps wants to help you create these miracles (even the messy ones) in your own home and to support you in all your parenting needs. Contact us to schedule a consultation.
Finally, please leave comment with any go-to recipes that you love. It’s always helpful to hear from other parents regarding new ideas for meals or snacks.
Find the joy-
Jessica McCauley, M.Ed is a mother of 2 young children dedicated to helping fellow parents navigate the early childhood years. With 10 years experience in early childhood/elementary education and as a Certified Child Life Specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital, Jessica offers a unique perspective on children and families. She combines her Montessori background, comprehensive knowledge of child development, a decade of experience, and the realities of parenting to support families and empower children. Contact her to schedule a consultation.