Expert Opinion

Messy Mealtimes

  • My toddler always resists coming to the table for dinner – why?

We all know that toddlerhood is largely about exercising that autonomy that is so rapidly developing in our littlies. And while that desire for independence can be so adorable at times, it tends to push our buttons more often than not! And as a parent, it can be so hard to let your toddler persist with a task rather than stepping in right?

Well the other side of developing autonomy is the somewhat overuse of the word “NO” from our delightful little toddlers! Learning they can control their environment by resisting and refusing is a big step in their development – and therefore a very normal part of being a toddler.

So, resisting coming to the table for dinner is largely because your toddler wants to show some independence. However, it can also be about struggling with the transition from one activity to another. I often talk about toddler brain development and how the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for planning and those more complex functions like controlling how we behave, does not fully develop until we are in our early twenties. This part of the brain is crucial in helping us transition between activities, which is why children can struggle so much with finishing one task and moving on to another.

So sometimes, simply being aware that this is a developing skill for your child (and the more they do it, the better they’ll get at it) can be helpful. But there are some supports you can put in place to help this specific transition:

  • Countdown warnings (“In 10 minutes we’ll be moving to the table” then “5 more minutes then it’s dinner time”)
  • Transitioning to an ‘in between’ activity if mealtimes are particularly challenging for your child – because who wants to turn off the highly stimulating and rewarding TV to go and sit at the boring dinner table?! So, try having something to transition to from the ‘fun’ activity – perhaps a puzzle at the table, to help ease the transition.
  • Insert some fun into the transition itself – try giving your child a piggyback or wheelbarrow walk to the dinner table.

As always, be clear about your expectations and remember that the calmer you can be as a parent (not easy at the end of a long day, I know!) the easier it will be for your child.

  • What can I do to make mealtimes calmer?

While the answer to this sounds easy, it’s not always so easy to execute! Making mealtimes calmer starts with us as the parents. If we can remain calm in the lead-up and during mealtimes, it removes an extra potential layer of stress which can amplify any unease or discomfort in our children. In fact, eating is a far more complex task than you might think. It involves serious coordination and engagement of muscles and organs you would not have thought were necessary! And for children who are still learning how to effectively manage eating, mealtimes can be quite stressful. And that’s when you might start to see tricky behaviours.

Ways to keep mealtimes easier (and hence calmer) can include:

  • Prepare meals in advance where possible so you can dedicate more attention to your child while transitioning to the table, and while eating.
  • Sit with your child while they’re eating as much as possible so they are not alone
  • Don’t put pressure on your child to eat as this ends up working against you with the adrenaline spike in your child serving to decrease their appetite.

Remember, some difficulties around mealtimes are normal. But if you’re noticing persisting and frequent challenges, get some external input from a registered feeding therapist or your pediatrician.

  • Should I let my toddler play with their food?

The neat freaks out there are going to absolutely hate my answer to this one, so apologies in advance for my resounding YES! Interacting with food is a crucial aspect of exploring the sensory properties of the various meals your toddler is presented with. The days of considering it ‘bad manners’ to play with your food are over – well, for the toddlers at least! Allowing them to engage with their food by offering safe foods they can self-feed with, presents a range of benefits for your toddler’s development.

It can help with preventing picky eating. The exposure to a variety of foods that they’re been able to touch and experience from a sensory perspective before even putting it in their mouths, allows your child to feel more confident around food. This is because being able to squish, smell, or inspect a food helps your child imagine what it will taste and feel like in their mouth. This can increase the likelihood of trying new foods and expand their repertoire of foods later on.

It can also help with motor skills and coordination. By picking up small pieces of food and coordinating their movements to get the food into their mouth, your toddler is learning absolutely vital skills in a very motivating environment.

It gives your child a sense of control. Allowing them to ‘play’ with their food and therefore feed themselves, you will have fewer battles around eating. You’ll probably find that their curiosity allows them to get more food in than you ever can with a spoon!

It helps your child learn. Exploring the sensory components of their food allows your child to learn more effectively. In fact, your child is going to learn and retain more information from the experience with more senses used in an activity. For example, with the simple act of snapping a carrot stick and paying attention to the sound, feel, smell, and maybe even taste, your child is being exposed to so much new information. They’re also developing their problem-solving skills (“I wonder what happens if I squeeze this pea?”) and concentration (staying focussed on one activity).

As always, ensure that your toddler can manage the foods you’re offering them, and follow current guidelines around baby-led weaning. However, providing the opportunity to engage with food in a fun way will result in numerous benefits for your toddler’s development.

  • I hate how messy mealtimes are – should it be like this? What can I do?!

As we know, exploring food through touch, feel and experimentation is how your toddler will grow to feel more comfortable around a diverse range of foods. And while mess is expected, I know it is hard for parents to manage at times. Importantly, it is helpful to try to keep your own stress or anxiety around the mess to yourself, so that your child doesn’t pick up on it and adopt difficulties with tolerating food on their face or hands. However, there are some measures you can take to manage the mess, which is really around setting some boundaries and putting in proactive measures:

  • Keep the focus on the fact that it is indeed mealtime and not playtime. If their interactions are moving away from being exploratory (such as throwing food around the place!), then remove the food or step in and start feeding them yourself.
  • Provide smaller portions at a time so there’s less mess. Then once a portion is finished, you can add more.
  • Use a mat underneath your child’s chair to catch the mess.
  • Be discerning about what foods you offer when – for instance if you can’t manage too much of a mess on a particular day, offer foods that your child will be less likely to explore through ‘play’. Save the ‘messy’ foods for days or times when you have the energy!

This opportunity for exploration may be messy, but you will thank yourself later if your child is more open to trying new foods. So try to follow your child’s desire to learn through experimentation and exploration as much as possible.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.