How to engage toddlers at the dinner table

Parenting a toddler can often feel like the equivalent of being a pro-wrestler. Trying to keep young children still for anything from changing clothes to changing a diaper can be like trying to tackle a squirming fish. Just to accomplish the basic necessities of cleaning a toddlers ears and wiping their nose can take the skills it would require to tame a bucking bronco, and what should be a quick hair-do often transforms into a lengthy aerobic workout. In the midst of the madness, trying to keep a toddler still at the dinner table is a battle of a whole new kind.

One of the most obvious characteristics of a toddler is that they’re small, and if they’re small, then so are their stomachs. A toddler can’t eat the same size portions as adults, because that much food will simply not fit into their stomachs. While adults like to super-size everything, toddlers are prone to eat just what they need until their next re-fueling point. This means they will eat less, finish more quickly and want to leave the table sooner than a grown-up.

Beyond being small, toddlers have many other characteristics that will help in understanding things from their perspective. Considering the “ABC’s” of a child’s mind can make it easier to better meet their meal-time needs.

First, children are active. The average toddler will not sit still for a twenty or thirty minute meal unless they are strapped down in a booster chair. Once a toddler is done with one thing, they’re ready to move on to the next adventure. This is another reason why a toddler is not likely to sit still as long as grown-ups at the dinner table, and why it’s more realistic to give several small meals throughout the day rather than expecting a young child to sit still for one large meal. Parents should allow their toddler to sit as long as they can, slowly extending the sitting time each meal until their child is used to being still for longer amounts of time.

Toddlers also like what is bright and colorful. Think of how a toddler sees a meal. Are they full of colorful foods? Or are they plain and boring? A grown-up might like what’s on the plate whatever the color, but a child will be more likely to enjoy the meal if the plate contains exciting colors. It’s not hard to create a healthy, colorful meal with the vast variety of fruits, vegetables and other foods that are available. In a popular children’s DVD, Boz the Bear sings about the fun we can have eating colorful foods: “Fruit is really yummy—a rainbow in your tummy! A very special treat, see all the colors you can eat!”  Imagine how eager children would be to eat knowing they can “taste the colors of a rainbow.”

Creative is another word that characterizes a toddler’s mindset. It’s important to have fun at the table. If mealtime is only the equivalent of a battle of wills, then it’s obvious why children don’t want to stay at the table for long amounts of time. Think of creative ways to make sitting down for a meal enjoyable. Pretending to eat in a princess castle or pirate’s cove can make mealtime more engaging for toddlers. Let your child come up with his/her own mealtime theme. The more creative the mealtime, the more likely a child will be begging to sit at the table.

Toddlers like to do what they see grown-ups doing. If dinner is stressful for a parent, it will probably be stressful for the child. If he/she sees their role models enjoying dinner, the/she will more likely enjoy it. If dinner becomes a constant wrestling match between wills and wigglyness, it will not be enjoyable for anyone involved. If a parent is distracted by work, constantly getting up, looking at the phone or worried about the dishes, then the kids will also be distracted by other things.

Grown-ups can be as selfish and demanding as kids are thought to be: always expecting them to act like adults. Sometimes parents need to be selfless and let their kids be kids.  There is a time and place for them to learn table manners, but it takes practice, a little bit at a time. Dr. Laura Markham advises that parents “remember that toddlers are not yet developmentally ready for the kind of dinner you can have with older kids, and they’re not toddlers for long. There’s no reason to sabotage your dinners when they’re older by making them hate dinner time now.” Don’t expect them to act like a grown-up at the dinner table if they are still wearing pull-ups. Let them grow into it.