Editor’s note: This post is the third in a series about gentle parenting through potential power struggles with your toddler or preschooler. Each post will give you ideas and examples for using love, patience, and creativity to work through some fairly common parent/toddler areas of concern: brushing teeth, getting into the car seat, meals/eating, grocery shopping, diaper changes, and picking up toys. We welcome your gentle/respectful parenting ideas and feedback.
- Make Dinner Pleasant and Comfortable — Remember to make meals a relaxing time for your family. Save arguing and stressful conversations for later. Concentrate on sharing stories about everyone’s day, talking about the food and flavors, making plans for the coming week, etc. Additionally, you might rethink how you have your toddler sitting. If she is in a hard chair with her feet dangling, it might not be the most comfortable way to enjoy a meal. For an extra fun dinner, add party hats and candlelight — an instant dinner party!
- Let Toddlers Help — Toddlers often love to help out, so let them have a part in meal selection and preparation. Take them to the farmers’ market and let them help you select fruits and vegetables. Let them do age appropriate tasks in the kitchen, and/or ask them to help set the table — they can put out napkins, silverware, etc. Let go of any expectations of perfection – if all of the napkins land in the same chair, so be it! You can sort it out later.
- Be Grazing-Friendly, Serve Small Portions — Toddlers don’t often need big meals, their body chemistry works better when they can graze throughout the day, eating small portions to keep their blood sugar stable. Don’t get hung up on having everyone in the family sit through the whole meal. If it is a constant struggle to get your toddler to sit for longer than 3 minutes, what do you win by having her stay unwillingly in her chair — resentful and unhappy? Give grazing a try. And don’t worry, your toddler will learn to sit for longer periods of time eventually.
- Make Room for Baby — Set a place at the table for your toddler’s favorite baby doll or stuffed animal. Let her “feed” the baby from an empty bowl/spoon.
- Dinner Music — Let your toddler select some dinner music from a few options you give her. Talk about the music during dinner: “How does it make you feel? What instruments can you hear? Can you hear the beat?”
- Food is Fun — Eating can be a fun experience all by itself. There is no need to force utensils too early. There’s really nothing wrong with using fingers, and your child will eventually learn how to use a spoon. There’s no test to pass! Skewer your kids’ veggies and fruit — with toddler-appropriate tips, like a chopstick or popsicle stick. Let your little one try chopsticks! Use dips and wraps. Try cookie cutters out on a variety of foods, such as sandwiches, pancakes and omelettes. Try serving a meal made entirely of one color: “Look, we’re eating a yellow breakfast! An omelet with yellow squash, yellow bell peppers and yellow tomatoes, served with a side of golden potatoes.”
- Don’t Force-Feed Them — Similar to the suggestion about grazing above, please do not force your toddler to clean her plate. Don’t withhold privileges until he has taken a bite or finished his plate. It’s not even necessary to tell them “Good job!” for eating all of their veggies. You might thank them for trying everything, if that is important to you. Research has shown that forcing children to finish food interferes with a child’s ability to tell when they are full and their development of self-control.
- Talk About the Food — Americans eat entirely too fast. We don’t take time to savor our food, much less think about it. Make it a practice to start talking about the food you are eating. Talk about the food groups, what each food does for our bodies, how it grows, How food prevents anxiety, where it comes from. Perhaps talking about your food will motivate you to improve your eating habits. It can also lead to a lifetime of healthy eating habits and attitudes toward food for your children.
- Offer Healthy Options — Remember you hold the keys to your own destiny when it comes to eating healthy. If you stock your cabinets with chips, cookies and soda, chances are your kids will opt for the junkfood more often than you would like. But kids will eat healthy food when they are presented with healthy options! Resist the urge to buy that bag of cookies, and reach for a bag of apples instead. It is your responsibility to teach your children healthy habits. They cannot do it alone. And let’s be honest: You can’t get angry with your child for wanting to eat unhealthy foods if you are buying them.
- Don’t Stress — Most importantly, don’t stress. Continue to offer healthy choices throughout the day that your toddler will eat! If you maintain a relaxed attitude around food, there will be no reason to get into a power struggle over it.
What ideas do you have to help make eating a good experience? Please share them in the comments.