Mealtimes are often not fun times when you have small kids. I know this, and I totally feel you. I know I’m not the only mama trying to catch spaghetti mid-air before it hits my once clean walls. Let’s not even talk about the stupid cream carpet (whose idea was that anyway?!) I’m certainly not the only mama to ever wonder how to make mealtimes less stressful.
But I’m going to share with you my tried and tested tips and tricks to making mealtimes less stressful, especially if you’re dealing with toddlers not eating and causing chaos instead! No one wants spaghetti walls (or carpets) and it is totally avoidable – promise!
How to make mealtimes less stressful
My kids aren’t perfect at the dinner table (or “ining table” as Amelia has taken to calling it… Kid can pronounce ‘pain au chocolat’ but can’t say ‘dining’… pfft), and I don’t believe that anyone’s kids are, at least not when they’re young.
But, the trick to older kids who are amazingly behaved at the table is starting them young. And the younger you start with basic boundaries, the better their eating will be in the short and long term.
My top tips will have a massive impact on how well your kids eat, will help to tackle a toddler not eating, and will even help you enjoy your food more.
Short Term Wins
Sit at the Table
The quickest thing you can do to switch up the chaos of meal times with your small people is to sit at the table with them. In an ideal world, you should be eating too, but if that’s really not going to work, then at least sitting with them will mean you’re there to handle any issues as they arise, rather than hearing a crash and coming running.
Hearing that crash stresses you out before you even reach the table, so you’re already on the back foot with handling the situation calmly and effectively. If you’re already at the table and can see it unfolding, you’ll be more likely to handle it calmly and therefore see better, quicker understanding from your kids.
It goes without saying, but turn off the TV, remove toys and tech (yes, your own too!). We have the radio on for some background noise, but other than that, your entire focus should be on the food and each other.
This works especially well with the youngest in your brood! Give them as much praise as humanly possible, and deal with the less desirable (lobbing food across the room) behaviour by reacting as little as possible. Just “Oh dear” will do.
Kids thrive on praise, and the more you give the more they’ll remember and display the behaviour they were praised for the next time they’re at the table.
Yes, I know it sounds obvious! On a serious note, though, I’ve lost count of the amount of Mums I’ve spoken to over the years who are totally panicked because their kid won’t eat. When we drill it down, it’s basically because she has been stressing out waaaaay too much about how much her kids eat. This usually leads to trying to coax kids into eating more, demanding they eat more, or other crazy tactics.
Kids don’t respond well to this, and they feed off the negative, desperate energy. Then rebel!
It’s the age old ‘act like you don’t care and they won’t have a reason to rebel’. One day of uneaten dinner isn’t going to harm them. Neither will 2, to be honest!
Long Haul Fixes
ALWAYS Sit at the Table
Here’s the thing; if you make it a habit now to always eat dinner together, not only will you enjoy better quality family time as a result, but your kids will learn from you.
They’ll see you using cutlery and copy. They’ll see you chewing with your mouth closed and copy. And yep, you guessed it, they’ll see you finishing your meal and copy.
It sounds too simple to be true, but the fact is the earlier you sit together at the table, the quicker your kids will pick this stuff up.
When they’re still in a highchair, bring them as close to the table as you can – remove a dining chair and replace it with the highchair so they really have a place at the table. And move to a dining table booster seat as soon as you can (I’d even go so far as to avoid the highchair altogether and go straight for the booster seat). A booster seat truly allows kids to be at the table with you, will make them feel more independent and confident in their table and meal time skills.
Introduce Chores Early
From as young as 3 (as soon as I could trust her to carry a plate without dropping it) Amelia has set the table before dinner.
Allowing her to lay the table, and giving her that responsibility made her appreciate dinner time just a teeny bit more. She took some ownership of it.
I call her into the kitchen when dinner is nearly ready and she takes the bits she needs a little at a time; first cutlery – yes I’ve taught her how to lay it properly too – then glasses for a drink each, then plates.
How to Make Mealtimes Less Stressful and More Enjoyable
Use meal times as a time to be together, listening to each other, chatting about your day. Even if you’ve been with your kids all day, try asking them what their favourite part of the day has been. You might even be surprised what they tell you!
The more enjoyable, relaxed, and interesting dinner time is from day 1, the more your kids will associate meal times with positive things.
That positive association will lead to positive behaviour from them, especially as they get older.
Don’t Just Take it From Me…
The best book I ever read when it comes to getting kids to eat, and attitudes to food is hands down this one by Pamela Druckerman. Pamela speaks so much sense, and pretty much everything in this book had me nodding along like one of those Churchill dog things. Well worth a read IMO.