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Keeping your cool during family mealtimes with babies and toddlers

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Mealtimes are an important part of family life. They offer family members a chance to come together to share not just food but companionship. Whenever possible, have your baby eat at the same time as the rest of the family. This helps your baby get used to the process of eating — sitting down, choosing foods to eat, resting between bites and stopping when full — and socializing with others.

These early experiences will help your child learn good eating habits that last a lifetime. Research shows that families that eat together regularly tend to eat more nutritious foods and are less likely to encounter childhood obesity or eating disorders. Children are also more likely to have better behavior, a stronger vocabulary and greater academic success.

Tips for babies

To encourage a pleasant experience for everyone at mealtimes, consider these suggestions.

Stay seated. At first, you may feed your baby propped on your lap. As soon as your baby can sit easily without support, use a highchair with a broad, stable base. Buckle the safety straps and keep other children from climbing or hanging on to the highchair.

Encourage exploration. Your baby is likely to play with his or her food between bites. Although it’s messy, this hands-on approach helps fuel your baby’s brain development. Placing a dropcloth on the floor can help. Offer your baby new foods to try. To increase the chances of acceptance, offer one new food along with an established favorite. Most babies can and should eat from all food groups as soon as 7 to 8 months of age.

Introduce utensils. Offer your baby a spoon to hold while you feed him or her with another spoon. As your baby’s dexterity improves, encourage your baby to dip the spoon in food and bring it to his or her mouth. After your baby turns a year old, his or her use of utensils will continue to develop. Give your child the chance to practice.

Offer a cup. Feeding your baby breast milk or formula from a cup at mealtime can pave the way for weaning from a bottle. When your child reaches 9 months, he or she may be able to drink from a cup on his or her own, but spills are likely until about 15 months or so. You may want to begin with a nonspill cup, often called a “sippy” cup.

Dish individual servings. Early on, your baby may eat just a few spoonfuls of food at a time. If you feed your baby directly from a jar or container, bacteria and saliva from the spoon can quickly spoil any leftovers. Instead, place 1 tablespoon of food in a dish and refrigerate the rest. The same goes for finger foods. If your baby finishes the first serving, offer another.

Know when to call it quits. When your baby has had enough, he or she may turn away from the food, lean backward, or refuse to open his or her mouth. Don’t force extra bites. As long as your baby’s growth is on target, you can be confident that he or she is getting enough to eat.

When babies are allowed to decide how much food they want to eat and how fast to eat it, they become fairly adept at it. And doing so allows them to regulate their food intake based on how hungry they are, which contributes to a healthy weight now and later.

Tips for toddlers

As your child moves into toddlerhood, you may notice a drop in his or her appetite. Your child may become fussy about what he or she eats, run away after a few bites, or resist coming to the table at mealtimes. This is normal — and frustrating!

After the first year of life, your child’s growth rate slows and he or she doesn’t require as many calories. To keep encouraging healthy eating habits in your growing child, follow these steps.

Minimize distractions. Make the most of family mealtimes. Turn off TVs, phones and other electronic devices. This helps your toddler — and everyone else — focus on the meal and each other. Even if your child isn’t using words yet, he or she enjoys the back-and-forth communication going on and the feeling of being part of the family. This sort of stimulation is important to your child’s mental, social and emotional development.

Keep portions small. As your child gets older, avoid giving too much at once, which can seem overwhelming. Put a small amount — about the size of your child’s fist — of each food group on the plate, then offer seconds if your child wants more.

Don’t sweat the picky eater. Picky eating habits are common in the toddler years and through preschool. But these behaviors generally ease with age. You’re not responsible for making your child like certain foods, but you can present multiple opportunities for your son or daughter to learn about food and try different kinds. Include your child in shopping for food, feeling the shape and texture of different food items, watching food being prepared, and maybe even having a taste.

Avoid power struggles. If your child turns away from a certain food, don’t push. Simply try again another time. Repeated exposure helps ensure variety in your child’s diet. The harder you push your child to eat, the less likely he or she is to comply. Offer a selection of nutritious foods at each mealtime and let your child choose what he or she wants to eat.

Focus on the positive. Praise your child’s attempts at eating and trying new foods. Meanwhile, avoid giving undue attention when he or she doesn’t eat. Focusing on your child’s positive eating behaviors — and mostly ignoring other behaviors — helps reinforce the positive behaviors and keeps mealtimes pleasant. Avoid using food as a means of punishment or reward — such as withholding dessert or using it as a bribe — as this can set the stage for an unhealthy relationship with food and will only reinforce the idea that desserts are more desirable.

Change it up. Sometimes, it’s not the food a picky eater objects to so much as the presentation. Your child might object to mixing foods or having one food touch another on a plate. If this is the case, try changing things up. For example, offer an array of bite-sized portions arranged in a row — maybe an assortment of cooked macaroni, cannellini beans, steamed broccoli florets and soft, diced peaches. These are all nutritious and your child can pick and choose what he or she likes. Even if they don’t all get eaten, point out the color and texture of the foods. Touching, smelling and playing with food are all exploratory toddler behaviors that precede a willingness to accept the food.

Be patient. Often, toddlers will want to eat a particular food for days, then suddenly refuse to eat the same food at all. Don’t worry too much about these food “jags.” Focus on providing healthy options and try to offer at least one food that your child is familiar with and likes with each meal. Keep in mind that most children consume the right balance of nutrients over the course of the week. A child’s pickiness won’t change overnight, so take small steps and make note of what works.

Dr. Klaas and Dr. Cook are co-editors of  Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Years, of which this article is an excerpt.

Walter J. Cook, M.D.

Dr. Cook is a specialist in general pediatric care within the Department of Pediatrics, Mayo Clinic Rochester, Minn., and an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. A father of three, including twins, he has cared for thousands of babies in more than 25 years of pediatric practice.

Kelsey M. Klaas, M.D.

Dr. Klaas is a pediatrician in the Division of General Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, Minn. She is the mother of two children who brings both a medical and new parent perspective to her practice and writing.

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