Eating together – leading by example at mealtimes

Lucy Shipton, EYN Partnership Registered Dietitian

“They used to be a brilliant eater. Then they turned one and everything changed” Sound familiar?

Toddlers are changing rapidly and this includes development around food and eating.  They suddenly want to exert their independence in many different ways but what is it about food that can be so challenging and emotional for parents?

One of the key messages I try and get across to parents anxious about their child’s eating habits is the importance of eating together. Good nutrition and a healthy relationship with food is not just about the food we provide. The environment in which we eat it, and the way we behave as parents and carers around food, can be just as important.

Read on for some of my top tips to try and help you encourage eating together as a family and set a good example to help your little ones develop great eating habits that will stay with them a lifetime:

1. Have a routine. Just as you have a bedtime routine it’s just as important to do the same for mealtimes. Encouraging your toddler to wash their hands and coming to sit at the table means that you are setting expectations and ring fencing the mealtime rather than letting it be part of a play routine for example.

washing hands

2. Limit your own distractions – turn off the TV, put phones and tablets away. I admit it is hugely tempting to keep checking my phone at the table but if there’s a house rule of ‘phones away at mealtimes’ we are all much better at focusing on the meal and each other.

3. Get them involved – kids love helping themselves at the table. It makes them feel grown up. Why not have some meals where the whole family serve themselves at the table rather than ‘dishing up” in the kitchen? Your little ones are much more likely to pick up some vegetables if they see everyone else doing the same. And don’t worry if they don’t actually eat it, remember most children need a little bit of investigation first whether it be touching, feeling, licking, smelling (and sometimes throwing!).

4. Be a good role model. Your toddler learns from watching what you do. Let your kids see you trying, tasting exploring and enjoying food. This includes not letting them see some of those habits that we know are not as healthy, such as adding salt at the table.

5. Be positive! Give lots of praise for good eating and reward them with your attention.  Avoid using food as a reward. Tell them how wonderful they are and how proud you are of them for trying something new.

6. Talk about food. Eating at the table gives you the chance to talk to each other about what’s happened during your day. Ask about what they had for lunch at nursery and ask them to describe their food to you. If you’re stuck for questions, my colleague Catherine has some good suggestions in her blog on how to create a happy eating environment.

7. Don’t forget to also set a good example with drinks at mealtimes. Again maybe having a big jug of iced tap water at the table that you all help yourself to (with help for the smaller ones of course but hey what’s a bit of spilt water between friends?!)

8. Remember what is normal – preference for different colours, tastes, textures, wanting to feed themselves, good days bad days, sudden dislike for previously liked foods are all perfectly normal for a toddler, so try not to despair if their behaviour seems baffling!

Of course there are times when eating together is just not possible for all sorts of reasons and I am the first to admit that. However, it is so important to try and eat with your children as much as possible and if you can try some of my top tips I think you'll reap the benefits!  For more ideas check out Catherine’s blog which gives you some tips on how you can help your children relax and enjoy their food.

healthy lunch

Lucy is a registered dietitian with 18 years’ experience in children’s nutrition. She graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Human Nutrition and Dietetics in 1997 and has been practicing as dietitian in the NHS ever since. Lucy is registered with the Health and Care Professionals Councils and is a full member of the British Dietetic Association. She has been involved in the teaching and mentoring of students and contributed to several dietetic publications as well as presenting at childhood nutrition conferences.
The EYN Partnership would like to thank Lucy for contributing her expert thoughts and personal views on this issue. Please note, that if you have any questions regarding the above as it relates to children in your care, please contact your healthcare professional for guidance.