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10 golden rules for stress-free mealtimes

Got a baby that won't eat? How to sort out a fussy eater and make dinner time fun

Posted: 3 February 2011
by Lucy Dimbylow

Family eating
Eating with your baby is one of the best ways of modelling good mealtime manners

From tiredness to teething to simple toddler wilfulness, there’s a whole host of reasons why your little one may go through a phase of fussy eating. And if you have more than one child, getting everyone to sit nicely at the table and tuck into the same meal can feel like an impossible task. But one thing is certain: the more stressed you get, the sooner that mealtime will become a battleground. So how do you maintain a sense of calm around the dinner table? Read on for our dos and don’ts.

Do eat together

If your child is a fussy eater, it can be tempting to feed him on his own so you can enjoy a stress-free meal later on. But you’re his best role model, and letting him eat with the rest of the family is one of the best ways of showing him how to behave nicely at the table, so try to all sit down together for a meal at least once a day.

Don’t leave it too late

A tired child is a difficult child, and is likely to kick off if you then expect him to participate in a family meal. Okay, so you might not be ready to eat dinner at 4.30pm, but neither is it reasonable to expect a sleepy, hungry tot to wait until 7pm for his meal. Try to find a compromise time slot that works for the whole family, ideally around 5.30pm.

Do get rid of distractions

Babies and toddlers find it hard to keep their attention focused, and the more there is to distract him from his meal, the less he’s likely to eat. So turn off the TV and the radio, move toys off the table and encourage everyone to concentrate on their food – not on what’s going on around them.

Do expect basic table manners

We’re not talking using the correct cutlery or uttering perfect Ps and Qs, but do encourage basic, age-appropriate manners from every member of the family. For your baby, that’s as simple as sitting nicely in his high chair and not throwing his food across the table; if he does, take calm but swift evasive action by removing his bowl.

Do make it fun

Mealtimes should be a social occasion, so encourage conversation at the table. Involve your baby in what’s going on with lots of eye contact and chatter, and think about the little tricks that will make it more fun for him to sit and eat with you, such as giving him a brightly coloured character bowl and encouraging him to eat by making aeroplane and train noises.

Don’t expect perfection

Mealtimes are never 100 per cent civilised when you have young children, so pick your battles. If a drink is spilt accidentally, or your baby decides to use his hands rather than his spoon for his yoghurt, just clean up calmly, and chalk it up as part of the learning experience instead of losing your rag.

Do keep your cool

You’re the adult, so it’s up to you to set the tone at mealtimes. Your children might be testing you to the limit, but if you immediately launch into threats, recriminations and shouting, the atmosphere will soon turn sour. Instead, keep smiling and try to ignore the bad behaviour.

Don’t react to tantrums

Tantrums at the table are a sure sign that your baby wants your attention, so the best way to respond is not to give it. If he’s safely strapped into his high chair, simply ignore completely; if he’s threatening to make the whole mealtime descend into chaos, then get him down from the table, put him somewhere safe like in his playpen and continue calmly with the meal. He’ll soon cool down when he realises no one’s looking at him.

Do serve something he likes

The key to successful mealtimes is to make sure that everyone has something they like in front of them. That doesn’t mean cooking separate meals for every member of the family, but if, for example, you know your tot won’t eat the roast beef you’ve cooked, make sure that he likes the potatoes and veggies you serve alongside it.

Don’t indulge fussiness

If he’s refusing to eat something you know he likes, don’t be tempted to give in and stick some fish fingers in the oven. If you’re concerned about him going hungry, give him a slice of bread and butter and a piece of fruit, but providing him with a more exciting option will set a dangerous precedent that’ll see you cooking separate meals every evening.

Do pile on the praise

Tiny tots love nothing more than your approval, so make sure you give it. It could be as simple as a big round of applause for your baby or a sticker and a high-five for your toddler, but showing your children how happy you are when they eat nicely will help to encourage them. 

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fussy eater, table manners, behaviour, weaning, feeding, baby, eating, eating together, dinner, manners, toddler, children, family

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