To say that toddlers and mealtimes aren’t always the best combination would be a bit of an understatement, to say the least. Teary tantrums, the refusal to eat anything, food being tossed across the room and smeared all over the walls – we’ve all been there, haven’t we? If you’re struggling, then this guide is for you.
We’ve put together our top tips for winning at lunchtime from parents around the world. Follow these hints and you could make the occasion a real joy – for you and your little one. You can thank us later!
Mix it up
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of feeding your toddler the same kinds of food at lunchtime every day. Especially once they’ve established what they like and what they don’t like. Which, as we know, can change overnight! It’s understandable, but try your very best to get inventive. Look to places like Pinterest, Instagram and kids’ recipe books for inspiration. There are so many toddler lunch ideas out there. Best of all, most incorporate tasty, nutritious and exciting food.
Cook lunch together
Ok, there’s only so much a toddler can do. But at the same time, don’t underestimate them! While we’re not suggesting you loop them into cooking a lasagne or a paella, you can get them to carry out simple tasks. We’re talking about getting them to arrange food on the plate, add sprinkles to cookies, and create their own miniature pizzas. Try theming your meals, too. If you’re making pizza, for example, stick on some Italian music and a couple of chef’s hats!
Make lunchtime as fun as you can
Yes, it can be tricky battling with a picky-eating toddler, but try and make the lunchtime experience as fun and light-hearted as possible! Singing songs, making jokes, and making the time really playful in general – all are great ways to make the experience a joyful one. You could also try arranging the food into fun shapes that your tot recognises, such as animals, shapes and smiley faces. And be sure to make the plate look as colourful and inviting as possible. Lastly, switch up your location. Maybe you have a picnic in the garden, or a tent lunch party in the living room!
Incorporate learning into lunchtime
Did you know that you can actually use lunchtimes to encourage all sorts of skills? All mealtimes, for that matter. For instance, counting the number of grapes or slices of apple on the plate, or asking your toddler about their senses – what can they see, taste, feel and smell? Not only are you encouraging your toddler to learn, but you could also provide a welcome distraction, resulting in them eating something they’d normally reject.
Speaking of distractions, it’s important that toddlers learn that mealtimes are special times, so make everything about that – the food, the eye contact, the conversation. That means no digital distractions, such as cell phones or TVs, and no books or magazines. Whenever possible, sit down and enjoy the process of dining together as a family and you’ll find that they take it more seriously as they grow older.
When they’re ready, let your toddler feed themselves
You can start letting your child finger-feed themselves from around 9 months, and they should try out cutlery from about 15 to 18 months. Naturally, it’s important that you let your toddler explore this new world independently, but also keep an eye on certain cues. Stepping back to let them do it themselves is all well and good, but not if they’re struggling and getting frustrated, which will lead to negative associations with mealtimes. Instead, help them out where you need to. At the same time, understanding when they’ve had enough is key. This is a time for your toddler to learn how to eat, what to eat and the amount they need, so it’s a significant learning curve.
Look to their role models to encourage healthy eating
Older siblings, friends and cousins – all are likely to be something of a role model to your toddler as they grow. That said, it’s a great idea to invite them over for lunch and let your tot watch the ‘bigger kids’ tucking into healthy, nutritious food. They’ll follow suit soon enough. The same concept applies to their favourite TV show heroes – point out mealtimes when they flash up on the screen and make a BIG song and dance out of it.
Don’t underestimate portion sizes
We all want our toddlers to grow up healthy and happy, and the temptation to overfeed is very real. Just one more spoonful, one more bite – you know the drill. The thing is, you shouldn’t overdo it. This is especially true when introducing your tot to new foods. Don’t crowd the plate – one of two spoonfuls of a new flavour or texture is more than enough. Otherwise, you risk putting them off things they’d otherwise enjoy.
Let them help out with the lunchtime planning
Involving your little one in the lunchtime set-up is a great way of getting them excited about sitting down to eat. Let them pass you things as you get everything ready, and make a big deal out of going to the grocery store and pointing and talking about different food types. Older children can also sit down and look at picture books with you, identifying something they’d like for lunch, or that they’d like to try another day.
Try not to give up!
We get that it’s really difficult when your toddler is being fussy, especially when they’re red-faced and screaming bloody murder mid-tantrum! But it pays to not get into negotiation territory. The moment you give in and swap a vegetable with a treat, you’re actually perpetuating bad behaviour. Your toddler will begin to see healthy foods, or foods they dislike as a ‘chore’, and the treat as the prize. They’ll also learn very quickly that if they make a big enough fuss, mom or dad will give in. Not a lesson you want a toddler to learn!