Are family meals difficult? Having realistic expectations will help you make this time more enjoyable.
A child’s behaviour during mealtimes can be a common source of stress for parents. Among other things, little ones can make huge messes when they eat. They might also spit, throw or crush food, talk with their mouths full, and keep standing up and moving around.
How can you make family meals more enjoyable?
The first step to making meal times more enjoyable is to adjust your expectations depending on your child’s age. If your expectations are too high, you might constantly nag them and demand they behave in a manner they aren’t capable of yet. If this is the case, mealtimes won’t be relaxing, and this time spent gathering around the table will just feel negative.
You should also keep in mind that children behave better at the table if they’re not overly tired, so try to schedule meals for when they still have some energy.
What should you expect at mealtimes?
Throughout the meal
How can you make family meals more enjoyable?
It’s unrealistic to expect your little one to sit quietly at the table like an older child, even if they’re sitting comfortably. They’re naturally curious and energetic, which makes them want to run around and explore. Sitting down for a while takes a certain amount of effort for them. That said, this isn’t a reason to let them move around while eating. In addition to being impolite, it increases their risk of choking.
There’s no set amount of time for different ages, but you can generally expect a 2- to 3-year-old to sit for 10 to 15 minutes, and a 5-year-old to sit for 20 minutes. As they get older, they’ll be able to sit for longer, but for now, the important thing is to focus on the quality of the time you spend at the table, rather than the duration.
Don’t let your toddler just come back for a bite every now and then, and then go back to playing. You should be eating together at the table. However, if they’ve finished eating their main course, you can let them leave the table and come back later for dessert (unless dessert was included from the start).
A comfortable seat
For a child to sit still, just like adults, they have to be sitting comfortably. The most ideal seat for them is a high chair or booster chair that you can adjust as they grow. The best position is sitting upright, with:
Their back supported by the back of the chair
Their elbows at table (or tray) height
Their hips and knees at a 90-degree angle
Behaviour at the table
Avoid turning mealtime into a battleground by constantly nagging or threatening to punish your child, or arguing about their eating habits.
They might be misbehaving at the table because they want your attention. Instead of reprimanding them, give them some positive attention by talking to them. For example, ask them which friend they played with at daycare, what story their teacher told, what game they played outside, or any other question related to their day.
Also teach them to take an interest in others and listen to what they say. To keep your child busy at the table, avoid giving them a toy or letting them look at a screen (such as a phone, tablet, or the TV).
A child should know what manners are by the age of 5, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll always eat the way you want them to.
Learning to eat without making a mess takes time and practice. It takes time to develop the fine motor skills they need to use utensils. Even though a child can start to feed themself with a spoon as early as 13 months, it’s still normal for your little one to use their fingers. For them, eating is another opportunity to develop their motor skills.
The more you let them feed themself, the better at it they’ll become. To enjoy mealtimes, accept that your toddler might get dirty and that some of their food and drink might accidentally end up on the floor.
However, don’t let them throw food on the floor on purpose. Make the rules clear by explaining what you expect from them. For example: “Food is meant to be eaten, not thrown,” “Leave your food on the table,” “Wipe your fingers and mouth with the cloth,” or “If you aren’t hungry anymore, let me know.”
Here are some suggestions to help keep messes under control:
Place a plastic sheet under their high chair.
Serve them food in an easy-to-eat way, such as by cutting it into strips or sticks.
Pick the food up off the floor after the meal is over, rather than every time something falls.
What should you do if they still prefer to eat with their fingers?
Touching food allows a child to learn more about it and awakens them to different textures. It’s important to let them do this. That said, if your child refuses to use a spoon for anything, try serving a meal that’s hard to eat without one, such as oatmeal, soup, or shepherd’s pie.
Encourage and praise them when they use utensils, while respecting their choice to use their fingers, especially if they’re under the age of three. You can still teach them to eat cleanly, without throwing food on the floor or getting it in their hair. To encourage them, have them “spoon-feed” their stuffed animals. This will help them practise, and they might even start to like it!
To learn more, check out our fact sheets:
Things to keep in mind
Make sure your child is sitting comfortably.
Focus on the quality of the mealtime rather than how long it lasts.
Help your child develop their motor skills by letting them practise, without doing everything for them.
Scientific review: Stéphanie Côté, M.Sc., nutritionist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: September 2021
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Better Health Channel. “Toddlers and mealtime manners.” 2021. www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au
Podlesak, Amy K.M. et al. “Associations between Parenting Style and Parent and Toddler Mealtime Behaviors.” Current Developments in Nutrition, vol. 1, no. 6, June 2017. doi.org