Right out of the gate, I should be clear: If things like table manners, class, and sophistication are priorities for you, we’re not living in the same world at the moment. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not knocking any of those things, and I have all the respect in the world for anyone who has a toddler who sits through a whole meal like a reasonable human being. I know there are those of you who manage it (hats off to you!) and I’m pretty sure we’ll get there some day. But at this moment in my family’s life, the priority is convincing the children that actually eating food will prevent them from becoming
intolerable life-sucking monsters cranky.
Our biggest mealtime issues at the moment are a child with a small appetite and frequent refusals to try new things. I’m pretty lucky in that my kids are actually fairly decent eaters overall. For genuine problem feeders, it’s likely you’ll need a lot more in your arsenal than these few tips and tricks, but for us, the following ideas have made many mealtimes easier.
Make it fun
Isn’t this basically the solution to anything with young children? When I have the energy to actually make it fun, mealtime goes so much better. With 2- and 4-year-old boys, calling spaghetti and shredded chicken “worms” and pieces of vegetables or meat “grubs” is a big hit. Bonus points if I feed them like they are baby birds. Other ways we spice things up include using toothpicks instead of forks, putting veggies and meats on “kabobs” (I just skewer them on a chopstick), and having “floor picnics” (picnic blanket on the floor of the kitchen — it’s amazing how much they love it).
Incorporate information about nutrition
I spend time talking to the kids about why eating a good variety is important and what it does for our bodies. My 4-year-old knows that orange vegetables help you see better, and when he’s reluctant to eat the sweet potatoes on his plate we’ll often play the “what can you see game” (basically a version of “I-spy”) in between every bite. If they’re not eating the meat on their plate I’ll talk about how strong or fast it will make them, and in between bites they’ll race around the house or show me the heavy things they can lift (I told you table manners aren’t high on the priority list right now).
Encourage just one taste
Gently encouraging kids to just try a taste of something new often results in them realizing it’s not the terrifying bowl of poison they seem to assume we’re trying to feed them.
In our house we use a sticker chart reward system for this, and it has been one of the most successful things we’ve implemented. The key here is I try to put absolutely no pressure on them one way or the other.
The narrative is basically this: “I made this thing that is new to you. I’d love it if you tried it. If you decide not to, that’s totally fine. You get to make decisions about your body, including whether you want to try something or not. I think you’re going to like it, which is why I’d like you to try. Trying new things can be hard, so if you decide to you’ll get a sticker.” If they earn so many stickers, they get some previously determined reward. Now that the younger and more gastronomically adventurous one has a sticker chart, too, they get a little competitive! If he gets a sticker, his brother will undoubtedly be trying something new that meal.
What tips and tricks have improved mealtimes at your house? And who wants to come over and help me work on table manners next?