Every evening, we dine together as a family.
While some parenting experts advise avoiding the evening meal as the family meal when your children are still small, this has always been an important tradition for us, perhaps passed down from Ryan and I’s generation.
But up until recently, we could see that dinner time was not exactly conducive to a harmonic dining experience.
Our usually well- behaved 2.5 year old would be throwing food, refusing to eat anything other than bread, putting her feet on the table and dumping her water out over her vegetables all while demanding juice, napkins, more bread, or more cheese, and not eating any of it.
Then, one unexpected benefit of our COVID-19 quarantine: we were able to work out the kinks in our routine to foster a much smoother family meal, with four basic rules.
4 Basic Rules for a Stress-Free Toddler Mealtime
These rules have allowed my partner and me to ensure everyone is happy, fed, and doesn’t need to down half a bottle of wine to cope.
I’ve written them in order of importance and effectiveness. If you can only follow one, they’re in priority order.
Rule #1: No Snacking After Naptime
This was easily the biggest contributing factor to a more peaceful, nourishing family meal: no snacking after naptime.
This was made possible by COVID-19 daycare closures. Pre-closure, we found that when we’d pick our daughter up from daycare at around 4:30pm, she’d be snacking with the other kids.
Then we’d bring her home for dinner an hour later and she’d have no interest in dining with us. Chaos would ensue.
Having her home means that we don’t have to give into the whims of daycare, and avoid snacking after naptime. She naps until around 3pm, and we try to eat at 5:30. If she’s truly hungry in that time period, we’ll rarely give her something small as soon as we can after she wakes, like a cheese string or half an apple. But for the most part, she goes snack-free after naptime.
Rule #2: Eat as Close to 5:30 as Possible
There’s a fine line with toddlers when it comes to hunger and energy levels. If they’re too hungry or it’s nearing bedtime, all bets are off and you really can’t expect decent behavior.
We had fallen into the habit of eating closer to 6pm than the intended 5:30pm most nights, but the later we sat down at the table, the worse our toddler’s behavior was. She had crossed the point of no return.
Now, we eat as close to 5:30pm as possible. This ensures peace in the kingdom, a well-fed toddler, and an easier bedtime.
If this is impossible (and on some nights it is) we forgo the family sit-down meal for feeding her at 5:30pm so she doesn’t go rabid. These rare times, Ryan and I eat when we put her down to bed.
Rule #3: No Off-Guard Meals
One thing I’ve learned over the last 3 years of parenting is that children need to know what is in store for them.
Poppy used to be uncharacteristically shy when we saw people she wasn’t used to seeing. I then realized that it wasn’t that she was being shy — she was just caught off guard.
I’d get her dressed in her outdoor gear and haul her into a car seat without telling her where, exactly, we were going. Then I’d expect her to be her normal, bubbly self after throwing her into a situation where she’d suddenly be in front of people she wasn’t expecting to see.
Kids have so much uncertainty in their lives, and I can’t imagine that it breeds cooperation to sit down at a meal that you were entirely unprepared for. So now, we ensure there are no off-guard meals by ensuring even the littlest members of our family know what's in store for them, and sometimes even have a say.
This can be done in one of two ways:
- Ask for input on the menu. If I can, I either get her input on what to eat for dinner by helping me choose between two recipes or two sides. This is never an open-ended question, but rather me asking for input if I’m able, as I would for anybody else.
“We’re making meatloaf for dinner! What do you think; should we have sweet potato or cauliflower with it?” or, “What sounds more delicious for dinner tonight: quesadillas or spaghetti?”
- Give a head’s up. If I can’t involve my toddler in what we’re going to eat (for example, if I had an ingredient that I needed to get rid of), then I let her know before I start cooking what I’m going to make. This can be as simple as “I’m going to start cooking our burgers for tonight’s dinner” and then a quick reminder 30-60 minutes before the meal starts (“We’re going to have burgers for dinner tonight”). No surprises for them = fewer for you.
Rule #4: Get Little Ones Invested
It’s a fact of human nature that people are more cooperative when they’re invested in the finished product. And people become invested when they’ve put some effort into the project.
This is a management principal and a motivational theory, and if it’s true with adults (which it is), it’s equally (or even more) true with toddlers. Which is why, when I can, I have Poppy help with the preparation of the meal.
I can’t expect my 3 year old to chop onions, but she’s perfectly capable (and usually thrilled) of bringing me a cutting board, fetching ingredients from the fridge, stirring the sauce, or pressing the buttons on the oven. And I find that when she’s able to contribute in these ways, she’s invested sweat equity in the meal, and therefore is motivated to eat it.
Mealtimes are an Art, Not a Science
Like with anything parenting-related, gaining cooperation and maintaining order is an art form, and a delicate one, at that.
Different strategies will work for your family and individual children, and every unit has its own schedules and hurdles to overcome.
And even if you have a fairly typical schedule, let’s face it: most days, you won’t follow each and every one of these rules. Maybe you’ll have to swap one out, or adjust another.
But I find when we follow at least 3 out of the four rules, our mealtimes go smoothly.