Sitting down to a meal with the family is a great way to get ready for the day ahead or reconnect after returning home from adventures out of the house. When the household includes a toddler, the prospect of family meals may feel impossible—but they’re not.
When to introduce Toddlers to Family Meals
There are so many benefits to sharing meals with the whole family that you may find yourself eager to bring everyone to the table as quickly as possible. There is no specific age at which including babies or toddlers at the table is best—go with what makes sense for the household’s schedule and your little one’s eating habits.
How to Prepare For & Include Toddlers in Family Meals
It’s never too early to start preparing your child for family meals by modeling healthful habits. When it’s time to pull the highchair up to the table to share a meal with the family, here are some tips for helping everyone through the transition:1,2,3
Kid-proof the dining area. Keep your little love in a highchair near the table. Use unbreakable dinnerware or offer your toddler their food directly on the surface of their highchair. Try to keep others’ plates and cups out of reach to prevent them from grabbing food off plates.
Set a mealtime schedule and stick to it. While younger family members may need to eat more often, they will get used to eating when they’re served if mealtimes are consistent. This will also help little ones learn how to recognize hunger and fullness.
Let your younger eaters set their own pace—within reason. Whether you’re eating with a toddler or an older child, your kid knows whether they’re hungry or full. Let them set the pace for eating and let them stop when they’re full—don’t force a clean plate. Don’t let mealtimes drag on forever—set a time limit for sitting at the table and end the meal when that limit is reached.
Set limits but take time teaching manners. Teaching toddlers table manners can start right away, but perfection won’t be on the menu. Start with the basics, like no throwing food or shouting, then move on to how to use napkins and how to hold a fork correctly.
Reduce distractions. It’s tempting to leave the TV on or keep your phone on during mealtime but focusing on food and family is the best way to keep younger eaters engaged and willing to sit and stay at the table. Turn off the TV and engage your toddler in mealtime conversation—even if it’s just about whatever’s being served.
What to Serve During Meals with Kids
Finding family-friendly, and toddler-tempting food options can help sharing family meals with toddlers—and eaters of all ages—get off to a great start. The first solids you introduce to your baby dovetail nicely with ingredients that can be used to create more involved dishes for older eaters. Eggs, toast, fruit, and more breakfast items are perfect to serve up in bite-sized pieces for breakfast; lunch and dinner family favorites can be handled in the same way.
Keep in mind that once your little one has started eating solid foods they can likely eat most of what you already prepare for each meal—it may just take some modification for their tastes and needs. Set aside your little love’s serving before adding heavy spice and ensure everything is cut small enough to chew. Do not include any ingredients that are small and round, smooth and sticky, or hard—such as nuts—as these present choking hazards.4
What to Expect When Sharing Meals with Todders & Kids
When you start to include your toddler at the table, here are some things to keep an eye out for:1,2
Picky eating and pushback. Picky eating is common and can crop up unexpectedly, especially when new foods or eating contexts are introduced. Unfamiliar foods—and sometimes even old favorites—might inspire refusal to finish or even start a meal.
Messy eating and food play. Around the nine-month mark your little one will start eating with their hands and utensils won’t come into play until about the 15-month mark—messes are going to happen. Getting their hands dirty may be expected at this time given that your toddler is not only honing their fine motor skills, but they are also learning by doing--learning through mealtime play.
Short attention spans. If your toddler isn’t entertained by exploring what’s on their plate, you may find that they develop a case of ants in their pants. Sitting—and staying—at the table for the duration of a meal is challenging for kids; it will take some time and practice—and patience from everyone.