Dropping food, throwing food, squishing food, dribbling food, pouring your drink out is all learning…not to mention the reaction from Mum and Dad when you make a mess! It can be an incredibly frustrating time for parents particularly if the antics with food continue after your child has developed the physical motor skills they need in order to eat without mess.
Expect there to be mess and be prepared
It takes practice to develop the fine motor skills required to eat without making a mess so acknowledge that it will take time for toddlers and young children to master the skill of eating. There will be times when your child is NOT deliberately being messy …and times when they are! Either way, by accepting that mess is inevitable…. you'll find it much less stressful and much easier to manage.
Evidence suggests that children can generally grasp what constitutes good table manners by the time they are about 5 years old….unfortunately however this doesn’t necessary mean they will behave how you would like them to, all the time. Establishing and consistently reinforcing acceptable behaviour in relation to food and mealtimes is important right from the word go. Good table manners will allow you to go out to eat as a family and help to take the stress out of mealtimes – it takes time and effort but its well worth it in the long run.
Every parent and family will have slightly different expectations when it comes to what is acceptable. Below are our views and some tips to help -
Sit down to eat
Toddlers and young children are curious and energetic, which makes it difficult for them to sit down while eating. Eating on the run has many downsides – its antisocial, even messier, as a parent you have no idea how much and what your child is consuming and most concerning…there are safety issues (choking).
Try the following to encourage your child to sit while eating:
Try to avoid meals turning into a battle! If your child knows sitting at the table (or not sitting) provokes a reaction from you…it may be a motivator to gain attention. Ensure your child knows that their meal is over when they leave the table….and quietly and calmly remove it if they leave the table. For more information see How to Avoid Mealtime Battles.
Reinforce desired behaviour
It is important your child understands what good behaviour is so compliment them and let them know. Role modeling is very powerful and simple rewards can also help to reinforce good table manners and behaviours. Stickers or a trip to the zoo are some great motivators.
Try not to inadvertently reinforce the poor behaviour - if your child does play up (throws food or leaves the table) calmly say something like ‘food is for eating’ or ‘are you finished’ or ‘please sit down while your eating’. Make sure your child is aware of the consequences of poor behaviour and these are consistently applied (for instance food is removed once a child leaves the table).
It may be helpful to be aware of the stages of child development, so that you understand the messy behaviour and don’t have unrealistic expectations of your child.
Food antics that are typical for toddlers and young children such as messy and fussy eating, result in a huge amount of food been wasted. This is concerning for parents as food costs a lot (financially, environmentally and in terms of time) and wasted food means your child is not eating it!!
Below are some of our ideas to help reduce anxiety around wasted food:
Other articles of interest -