You know how family dinners are played out in movies and on TV? Everyone sits at the table, and they laugh and share a good, heartfelt conversation like it’s no big deal. Meanwhile…we’re over here screaming “JUST EAT YOUR FOOD” and are wrestling with our toddlers to sit down and get one more bite in. It’s hard to envision sitting down during mealtime, bonding over a good convo and not talking about the food everyone’s eating (or not eating).

Mealtimes are stressful in real life. As parents, it seems we can never escape the stress of making sure our child eats enough and gets all their vitamins in for the day. After all, we want what’s best for our kids, so who can blame us for placing so much importance on the food they’re eating! Often this stress makes us forget that one purpose of sitting together and having family meals is: enjoying each other’s company and enjoying the conversations!

You might say…listen Edwena, I don’t care about having nice conversations at dinner time right now. I seriously just want my kid to eat!

To which I say…did you know that sitting down and talking to your child about literally anything besides food can actually help with picky eating and getting in enough food at mealtimes? Seriously! And it’s totally possible when first, you implement the division of responsibility and then second, the tips that I talk about in this blog post. Those family dinner scenes you see in the movies can, and should be, a real thing.

Let me show you how.

Why you should take the focus off of food

It eliminates unintentional pressure

By focusing more attention on your child and worrying less about how much food they are eating, you create a more positive, laid-back meal environment, which can particularly help cautious eaters thrive. If you have a baby or toddler who is a cautious eater, I want you to know that coming to the table and sitting for mealtimes can be really stressful for them for multiple reasons. Sometimes the thought of coming to the table and seeing a new food being served can be too much for them to handle on it’s own, and hearing you talk about it can only make things worse. This ends up being an unintentional form of pressure! Imagine you had someone watching you the entire time you ate, and were constantly coaxed to take another bite or eat your carrot before your rice, or tell you that what you ate wasn’t enough. Every. Meal. You’d HATE coming to the table. Let alone feeling this with a food you didn’t even like…or were completely disgusted from. You’d probably come to associate that food with negative memories and feelings, and your anxiety around mealtime would increase, your appetite would lower due to the anxiety, and it would cause you to become even more picky and cautious…rather than teach you to like it.

Believe it or not, focusing solely on the food and not on your child isn’t only stressful for them, but for you too! Children are extremely observant and can read body language really well, so if you are constantly stressing over how much your child’s eating, they’ll notice this and yes, this can lead to more resistance to want to eat again! Toddlers are known to want to push back and exert their independence, so they’ll definitely say “NO” to doing something just because they sense you want them to do it. It also means you end up overstepping your role in feeding, which is a recipe for more troubles at the table. 

It helps with language development

It’s important to not underestimate the value of all of the small talk that comes up during meals, and how beneficial this can be for children who are beginning to learn language skills! Family mealtimes can allow kids to develop, practice, and expand their vocabulary skills by learning how to piece new words together into a sentence. Or by learning how to tell stories, and how to understand the stories other family members are telling. Setting up mealtimes as an opportunity for your child to converse with you can also go a long way in modeling how to actually have a conversation with someone, or what proper table etiquette should look like. Remember, children thrive off observing and experiencing things – this is simply how they learn, and this can help their development in so many ways! 

It creates an opportunity to share feelings and actually bond and learn

After a busy day, mealtime can serve as a place of peace for your family to all come together and check in with one another. By taking the focus off food, you end up shifting mealtimes from a stressful situation into a more calm environment that allows for family bonding to happen. Making the time to have at least a few family meals together per week, where anything can be up for discussion, can help your child feel like their feelings and emotions are being validated, and actually gives them a safe space to talk about all the fun things they did that day. Knowing they can come home and spend quality time with their family at the table can actually become the one thing they look forward to instead of dread, and even serves as a security blanket for them…like a safe haven. Taking the time to converse with one another can, of course, increase the cohesion of the family and allows everyone to keep up to date with one another’s interests, which can be used to create meaningful conversations at future meals. 

It’s also a great place to bring up maybe some more heavier topics like racism, bullying or discover any problems that may be happening in their lives. Mealtime has long been known to be not only a place to bond, but a place to release. It’s very rare that the whole family (or even just you and your child) are able to sit uninterrupted to just chat and get opinions, and so the dinner table makes for a great place to bring up topics that may be avoided or unattended to in other circumstances.

It makes mealtimes more fun!

Period. We all need a little more fun at mealtime!

How to converse with your baby and toddler at mealtimes

One of the major pushbacks I get when I teach this is: “What am I supposed to talk about with my baby or toddler? I either get nothing back (they can’t speak) or I get one word answers.”

Oh man do I know what you mean. I remember very well what it was like to ask my boys when they were in preschool and lower elementary: “How was your day today?” …. “Good.” …. “What did you do today?” …. “Nothing.” 

Great talk kids. 

Here’s where we get creative. This may require you to think more like your child, thinking not only of their interests and what they may be interested in talking about, but also think about how kids speak amongst themselves! 

Babies:

Babies should always be included into family meals when they start eating solid foods, and can definitely benefit from joining in on the conversations! Although they can’t really contribute with real words, they can observe and listen, engage in “your turn/my turn”, all while helping them develop language skills for the future! 

With babies especially, I find there’s a bit of balance to play between engaging them during mealtime, while also giving them their space to eat and do their thing. Sometimes hovering over a baby, or engaging them constantly, can be distracting or pressuring. My suggestion is to sit back a bit, and alternate between talking for a bit and eating your own food for a bit. 

If your partner or other kids are at the table at the same time as you, chat with them as well, as you normally would, without feeling the need to constantly look over and focus on your baby. Leaving room for a little “white space” in the conversation may be a good thing to try if you find your baby (or even younger toddler) is having a hard time focusing on eating while “talking” and listening.

When talking to your baby, I’m a big proponent of talking out loud to your baby as if you knew they could understand everything! Just like you would talk to an adult! I know it sounds silly, but even just saying out loud: “Oh the sun is out today. I think after we eat we’ll go for a walk.” And, “I’ve got to run some errands tonight before you go to bed. So much to do!” Let your baby hear you talk out loud, and you may even see them respond with a squeal or a grunt. Or they’ll just listen curiously as you ramble a bit, but they’ll feel included and begin to understand that mealtime is a connective time. 

When it comes to talking about food, it can be a great way to expand their vocabulary and have them participate in taking turns in a conversation. You could talk to them about what they are eating by naming the food like: “Today we are having blueberries for snack time. Blueberries are the color blue”. Ask questions and praise their skills, such as: “Can you pick up the blueberry?” Or, “Look at how well you did that!” You can talk them through what you’re doing, like: “I’m going to put a little bit of this hummus on your tray. Next to the carrot.” And just simply comment with general observations about what they’re doing (without any judgments tied to it…more on that in part two of this blog post coming next week)

Toddlers and preschoolers:

Ever see a group of older toddlers or preschoolers speak to one another? 

“I like trucks”

“Daddy has a truck”

“I saw a truck by Nana’s house.”

“Your breath smells funny”

“I don’t like this!”

Honestly, it’s sometimes very random and full of emotions, observations, and big feelings. Sometimes with toddlers who are verbal we go to ask them a question to converse and we end up answering for them, or speaking too much in general. Toddlers are just getting comfortable with formulating their thoughts, expressing themselves, and using their verbal skills, so usually it takes time for them to respond. That’s why my big tip is to make room for a nice long pause when speaking to them. Don’t rush in quickly with something to say just to fill the room with words. What may be awkward to you, is no big deal to them. Once you give them time to respond, or say their feelings, you’ll see that they will express themselves!

I also would recommend just acknowledging their feelings (whatever they may be) versus trying to talk them out of it, or convince them that something isn’t a big deal, etc. I know that when it comes to food, hearing something like “This is gross!” or “I don’t like this” can set our hairs on end and have us wanting to fire-back a rationale as to why they shouldn’t feel this way. I’m not a language or parenting expert, but from my experience, the best thing you can do is to say anything that shows you acknowledge the sentiment. “I hear you don’t like it”…and then let them sit with it. Or, “Thanks for sharing that”…and then let them sit with it. Or even just, “Okay, thanks for telling me”…and again…let them sit with it. Don’t jump in with add-ons like: “I hear you don’t like it…but…” or “Thanks for telling me…but…”. Just show them you acknowledge it, let their feelings and reactions pass (even if that’s pouting or crying), and move on with your meal and conversation with others until they have dealt with it.

When you want to deliberately incorporate simple learning strategies into your conversations about food and objects around them at the dinner table, you can speak about the colors of foods/plates/utensils, the different shapes of the dishes, food, or other things at the table as well. My blog post on food exploration will help here too. Be sure to let them take the conversation wherever it leads. 

For example, if you say: “What colour are your peas?”

And they respond with: “Daddy likes to eat peas.”

Instead of rushing to end the train of thought they’re in with, “Okay, but what colour are the peas?”

You can instead keep the conversation going by saying: “Daddy does like to eat peas. His favourite is peas with mashed potatoes.”

Then, wait a second. See if they respond with a new thought based on that statement. Later, when the time is right, you can ask what colour the peas are again if you want to get back at it. This is just so you don’t miss an opportunity to talk and have a full conversation with your toddler/preschooler that could sometimes be more important than naming the colour of the peas! Otherwise, the conversation could just end once the colour of the peas were named. This can just extend things a bit more if you’re struggling with keeping the conversation going for longer. 🙂

As they progress into preschool, you could begin more in-depth conversations that can lead into more dialogue. Open ended questions work great here! It could be as simple as asking them how their day was, or who they played with at preschool that day. Other ideas include:

  • “What was your favorite part of your day?”
  • “What is your favorite animal? Why?”
  • “If you could be a dinosaur, which one would you be?”
  • “What are you most looking forward to this week?”
  • “Name three things you really like.”
  • “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
  • “What made you happy today?”
  • “Who is the funniest of all your friends?”
  • “What made you laugh today?”
  • “What would you do if a friend took one of your toys?”

As you probably already know by now, kids often have the most hilarious and random responses when prompted with questions like this! It can be a great laugh for everyone at the table! 

I also really recommend talking about yourself to preschoolers…and letting them jump in, if and when they want to, with comments!

I used to LOVE hearing stories of my mom and dad with my grandparents… the day they got their favourite toy, how meals used to be when they were young, what their bedroom looked like. ANYTHING and EVERYTHING! Go ahead and tell them a story about when you were young, or something interesting you saw that day, and see where it takes you. Chances are, they’ll love your story-telling!

School-aged children:

School-aged kids will often have plenty to talk about, what they learned at school, who they played with, etc. Some examples you could use for school-aged children, depending on their grade level, include: 

  • “Pretend you could be a teacher for the day, what rules would you have for your classroom?”
  • “If you could have a super power what would it be?”
  • “What sports do you like to play?”
  • “Name one thing you did that was helpful today.”
  • “What do you think the dog would say if she could talk?”
  • “What is your favorite thing to do in (summer, fall, spring, winter)?”
  • “What is something you are good at?”
  • “Do you know what racism means”

We really found success with saying our “highs” and “lows” for the day. A “high” could be anything good or positive that made them happy, excited etc…or even just something they were grateful for. A “low” was anything that made them upset, angry, down, worried, anxious, etc. They would get better at this with time, but it quickly became a habit for us to go around the table, and take turns sharing our highs and lows. We also would pick discuss one thing in the news at the time and bring up our thoughts about it, and ask our kids to say what they think as well. Finally, having a “word of the day” or “word of the week” is great ritual to get into, where you pick one new word, define it and each use it in a sentence every night at dinner. A great way to expand on vocabulary!

If you find yourself wanting to make this more structured and exciting, you can print and cut out conversation starters and put them in a jar which can be passed around the table during the meal. It can serve as a great mealtime ritual for everyone! In light of the recent events in the news surrounding the death of George Floyd and the anti-racist movement, we’ve recently started using this resource from Education with an Apron on definitions of racism, bias, white privilege and more. It’s so much more accepted and we get much better discussion with undivided attention on important issues such as this when it’s done around the dinner table!

And finally, you can even include games here too!

The go-to game I played (and continue to play) with my boys is “Would you rather?” You could say something like:

  • “Would you rather eat your least favorite food or have extra homework for a week?”
  • “Would you rather play baseball or soccer?”
  • “Would you rather go to the zoo or to the park?”

It’s our favourite!! So easy, funny, and is a great way to open up the conversation about so many different topics. 

Overall, when you think of mealtime, I want you to reframe what it’s about in your mind. It has little to do with food, and everything to do with family!!

Next week, I’ll be releasing part two of this blog post – all about how to praise your child at the table WITHOUT pressuring them. It will cover some things to say, and not say, when you do want, or need, to talk about food and their eating behaviour, so that you will be encouraging them and keeping them motivated, while avoiding any negative side effects. 

Stay tuned! 

Want more practical and strategic tips for learning WHAT to feed and HOW to do it in order to raise a healthy toddler and overcome picky eating? You’ve GOT to check out my Feeding Toddlers online course!! It’s video based, self-paced, and covers ALL the info you’d get in feeding therapy…brought home to you! It’s laid out in step-by-step format, designed to transform your mealtimes from stressful to laid-back, and take your toddlers from hesitant to little food explorers! Join thousands of other parents who have transformed their food journey, enroll now!

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