Toddlers learn early what good table manners look like.

Encouraging Social Development in a Toddler at Meal Time

by Patti Richards

Getting a toddler to sit still at mealtime can look a lot like trying to catch a greased pig at the state fair. But encouraging social development at mealtime helps your toddler learn important social skills. Your toddler may seem like he is getting more food in his hair and on the floor than in his mouth, but never fear, he is watching and learning. You’re probably wondering how turning a bowl upside down is learning anything, but gentle and firm reminders really do get through to that spaghetti-covered head. It takes patience and repetition, but in time, your toddler can learn to eat at the table without turning meal time into a war zone.

1. Sitting Still

One of the things meal time can develop in your toddler is the ability to sit for extended periods of time. Now that’s not to say that you should expect your little one to be quiet and well mannered for 30 minutes or however long it takes you to eat together. The best thing to do is decide how long you want your toddler to sit before she is allowed to get up. Gauge the amount of time based on her age and then add to it every few weeks. Most toddlers can sit in a high chair, as long as they are actively eating, for about 10 to 15 minutes. After that, it’s time to get her up and moving. Increasing the amount of time she spends sitting at the table will increase as she gets older. Watch for clues to how long she can handle sitting still by how long she looks at a book or engages in a play-time activity without moving to the next thing or getting frustrated.

2. Appropriate Communication

Meal time is an opportunity to teach your toddler what types of communication are appropriate at certain times. Things like yelling, laughing too loudly, banging utensils and throwing things are all appropriate in their place, but you want your toddler to recognize early that these behaviors don’t belong at the table. Meal time helps your child understand the difference between his inside and outside voice and that food is for eating, not for throwing. Of course you’re going to have the occasional time when your toddler is just plain funny at the table. So be ready to laugh when he passes gas, belches or throws a spoon, but let that be the exception rather than the rule. Toddlers love to make you laugh, and if you continue, so will the behavior. Correcting inappropriate communication is as simple as saying, “let’s use our inside voice,” or “we don’t throw our spoons, we eat with them.” You need to correct inappropriate behavior, but do it in a positive way so you can make mealtime an enjoyable experience.

3. Healthy Habits

Learning healthy habits is an important part of your toddler’s development. Time spent at the table eating allows you to pass on healthy habits early. Chewing your food thoroughly, taking small bites and eating healthy portions are all habits your child will model by watching you. Even though her spoon may end up on the floor more than in her mouth, letting your child learn to use utensils helps develop fine motor skills and teaches control at the table. Give your toddler plenty of opportunity to try healthy, colorful veggies and fruits, adding new foods one at a time to watch for allergies. Toddlers' taste buds are developing along with the rest of their bodies, so don’t be surprised if some things just don’t taste good at first. If your toddler has a negative reaction to a food, don’t worry, you can always try again later.

4. Good Manners

Mealtime is the perfect time to teach good manners to your children. As you model good manners like saying “please,” your toddler is listening and learning. Decide ahead of time how you want your children to ask for food at the table; “Please pass the potatoes,” “May I have the potatoes” and “Potatoes please” are all good options. The important thing is to choose something and be consistent so your toddler can learn expectations. Deciding what other manners you want to teach is also important. Placing napkins on laps, waiting until everyone is served before eating and saying “Thank You” when something is passed to you are all things to think about. Learning good manners at home makes taking your children out to a restaurant seem less scary. Starting when they are toddlers gives you plenty of time to teach them what you expect and what is appropriate.

About the Author

Patti Richards has been a writer since 1990. She writes children’s books and articles on parenting, women's health and education. Her credits include San Diego Family Magazine, Metro Parent Magazine, Boys' Quest Magazine and many others. Richards has a Bachelor of Science in English/secondary education from Welch College.

Photo Credits

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