Children have a short attention span, so it is also common for children to get up and down from the table or lose interest in their meal quickly (as frustrating as it can be for parents).
Short attention spans, including at meal times, is a common behaviour demonstrated by toddlers and pre-schoolers and my children have been no exception. As children go through their pre-school years their focused attention increases (a relief for many parents) with their growing ability for attentional control (Choudhury and Gorman, 2000). Be reassured that this is also a part of normal childhood development.
As a parent, my one meal time non-negotiable is that my children finish their mouthful before getting up or down so that they are not at risk of choking as they dance around the table. Our meal times can sometimes resemble a circus, but as long as their safety isn’t compromised I believe we can work on table manners over time as attention span broadens.
While it is comforting to know other parents struggle with wriggly toddlers at meal times just as much as you, it’s also helpful to have a few tools in your Meal Time Success Toolbox to help you respond to your wriggly toddler so that meal times feel more successful.
These are my top KIND ways to avoid wriggly toddlers at meal times:
Avoid calling your child to the table before dinner has been served.
As mentioned above, pre-schoolers have a much shorter attention span than adults. Sitting at a table prior to dinner being served can result in wriggly toddlers and a stressed out parent. If you are at home, encouraging your child to participate in the setting of the table or preparation of food is a great way to make them feel involved in the process without having to hold their attention for too long. When their food is ready to go, call your child to the table.
This is a helpful tip for those who eat out. If you are heading out to a restaurant or cafe be mindful of the wait time and the expectation you have on your child to sit still during meals. Where possible, consider ordering your child’s meal as soon as you arrive to dinner and allow your child to play before calling them to the table when their food arrives.
Consider portioning main meals into two servings and allowing a ‘meal break’ in between.
If you have a particularly restless and wriggly toddler you may wish to consider breaking their meal into two smaller portions and allowing a small break between servings. Your child may not need the break and may be able to continue on to their second serving but if they do need a break you’ve already planned for it, making meal times feel more successful.
Choose a ‘break’ activity that isn’t too stimulating, such as a quick lap around the table to get rid of that wriggly energy.
Eat as a family wherever possible.
As a busy mum of two, with the third on the way, I completely relate to having very limited time. Meal times can feel like the perfect time to tend to other tasks BUT I can not stress enough the importance of family meal times for MEAL TIME SUCCESS.
Evidence-based research suggests aiming for a minimum of three family meals per week. If you find your child’s meal time is too early for you, choose to have a small serving of their dinner or a healthy snack at their meal time and sit with your child. They learn so much from observing and modelling your behaviour.
Take note of adult behaviour at meal times.
Are you getting up and down from the table to tend to your little one’s needs, to retreive items you’ve forgotten or tend to other tasks? Are you even sitting down to eat? While there is often purpose for us leaving the table, remember that our children learn from and model the behaviour of those around them. Where possible, prepare your table with all that you may need before you get started and only leave the table if absolutely necessary.
Throughout my MEAL TIME SUCCESS program/guide, you’ll hear me mention the importance of eating as a family as an incredibly valuable and well-researched strategy to create more successful meal times (among other benefits).
Consider fun family meal nights every so often
If you feel meal times are becoming particularly difficult, consider taking the meal outside as a picnic, having a themed dinner with dress ups, having a kids-create family meal such as pizzas or tacos or having a fun family game after dinner (where age appropriate).
This can create a ‘break’ from the usual meal time and create an environment that is more stimulating for your little one’s already limited attention span.
Encourage positive conversations between all at the table and keep difficult conversations separate to meal times.
The aim is to create meal times that are enjoyable, successful and stress-free for all involved. While this can feel challenging in the earlier years, you are creating more than just happy and successful meal times. By encouraging a positive meal time experience you are also helping to shape a positive relationship with food for your little one, something that should never be underestimated. If you have difficult conversations to chat about, avoid doing so around food wherever possible.
Another incredibly powerful tool is the use of praise at meal times. If your child sits at the table, even for a short period of time, remember to offer lots of praise for their behaviour. Meal times for children are a relatively new experience (especially if they have recently left the high chair and have a new sense of meal time freedom). Offer plenty of praise for the behaviour we want to see more of (also known as positive reinforcement) so that your little one knows what is expected of them at the table.
Be okay with imperfect meal times.
I hope that by now you can see that there are a number of ‘normal’ and common behaviours that we can expect to see in our toddlers and preschoolers. Knowing that these are relatively normal periods of growth and development can, at the very least, remind you that you are not alone when it comes to meal time stress and frustrations.
Meal times do not need to be ‘picture perfect’. It’s okay if your child gets up and down from the table throughout the meal provided they are safe while doing so and provided the bites they do take count (for example, they are eating from nutritionally dense meals). A wriggly toddler at meal times doesn’t mean you are failing them as a parent and it likely will not last forever (although it feels as though it will during those difficult periods).
Reach out and chat to other mums, remind yourself that what you are experiencing is common and know that your child will likely move through these difficult stages with little impact on their overall health and wellness.
What if I don’t have access to a table?
While the above tips reference sitting at a table, family meal times don’t need to be structured at a table. Choose a consistent space in your home where you can eat as a family. This ideally would not be in front of a television (we chat about this in depth in our MEAL TIME SUCCESS program). You can get creative with picnic rugs, stools, chairs or eating on your lap. The above tips can work for any meal time environment.
If you found this helpful you may also enjoy my article TIPS TO GET KIDS EATING (AND ENJOYING) VEGETABLES
This and SO much more is covered in thorough evidence-based and practical detail in my MEAL TIME SUCCESS program/guide, available NOW. I believe every parent is doing the best they can in the moment they are in with the resources they have available to them. With this program I simply hope to add to your parenting toolbox so that meal times can be successful, easy and stress-free (yes, it is possible!).
We can’t wait to help you achieve meal time success EVERY DAY.
Krissy Ropiha is a Certified Nutrition and Health Coach specialising in early childhood nutrition and a Psychology graduate (BScPsycHons). She is passionate about supporting, inspiring and empowering busy mums to take back control of their family’s health, get nourishing meals on the table in less than 30 minutes and achieve happy and successful family meal times.
Strive for nourishment, not perfection.