Manners and Mealtime Just Don't Mix

Typical toddler concerns can cause chaos at the dinner table. Learn how to correct them.

Manners and Mealtime Just Don't Mix


Most toddlers (and preschoolers) do not have very exotic tastes. So if you and your partner prefer foods that your child doesn't like, try to make something simpler for him.

Mealtime for toddlers is never a good time to introduce the concepts of manners and discipline, yet many parents and toddlers have more conflict over eating habits than almost anything else. Maybe you want your child to eat everything on his plate or perhaps he refuses to eat what you're offering. Maybe you insist that he eat his vegetables before having any dessert or perhaps you've decided it's high time that he started using his spoon instead of his fingers to feed himself.

You want to make sure that your children eat well and don't disrupt family meals. But battling with your toddler over mealtime habits will probably not cause your child to eat any better—and is sure to create an enormous disruption. Whether they take the form of pleading, arguments, ultimatums, or all three, the more battles you have over your child's eating habits, the more likely he will be to stage an encore performance. Look at the attention he's getting. Look how much you care what he eats. Look how helpless you are to force him to eat what he doesn't want to eat—or to eat in a way that you want him to eat. That must make your toddler feel powerful.

As in any situation that you think demands disciplinary action, first ask yourself whether your expectations of "appropriate behavior" are reasonable. Frankly, most parental expectations and concerns regarding their toddler's mealtime manners don't make sense when looked at from your child's point of view-or even from a detached, disinterested point of view.

Here are some typical concerns that cause chaos at the dinner table:

  • You want your child to eat a balanced diet. So offer your toddler a balanced selection of foods,then let him eat what he wants. If you watch what your child eats in a single day, you may conclude that your concern is warranted, but if you watch what your child eats over the next week or two, you'll start to ease up on the nutritional demands you make of your child at each meal. Day by day, children do not always balance their diets. Over the long haul, however, as long as you continue to provided balanced foods, your toddler will most likely eat a balanced diet. This may mean nothing but bread today, nothing but cheese for the next two days, and nothing but fruit for a day after that. It will all even out. Research has shown that one-year-olds who are given the chance to choose their own meals (from a balanced offering of foods) do create a balanced diet for themselves in the long run.
  • You're concerned that your child may not be eating enough. No toddler would ever choose to starve himself. As long as you provide enough food, he will eat what he wants and needs, but this doesn't mean he needs to eat everything you offer. Trust your toddler to know when he's had enough. If he lets you know by word or by gesture that he's already full, why would you want him to finish everything on his plate? As your parents may have told you, children are indeed starving in Africa, but what good will it do them for your toddler to clean his plate?
  • You want your child to stay at the table because mealtime is "family time." Why not just stick bamboo shoots under your toddler's fingernails or hook him up to the rack instead? Sitting is torture for a toddler. Even while your child is eating, and apparently enjoying his food, you may notice him straining to get out of his highchair every few minutes. A toddler wants nothing more than to get up and get moving—even when he's engaged in an activity that demands sitting. So even though eating is usually fun for your child, sitting around after he's done definitely isn't. You'll have a more peaceful family time if you acknowledge this fact by letting your toddler roam about as soon as he's done eating.
  • You want your toddler to observe proper mealtime manners. Forget about it—at least for now. Your child can hardly use a spoon by himself, still has trouble stabbing things with a fork, and has only the roughest idea of what to do with a knife. Let your toddler get his food to his mouth any way he likes. His confidence and sense of independence will increase the more you allow him to feed himself. But this means putting up with the way he chooses to do it—whether this means a spoon, fingers, or shoving his face down into the plate like a pig at a trough.