One of the most essential tools for learning feeding skills is modeling, which is best done by having regular family meals at the table. Most parents agree that sitting together for meals is important. I would like to advocate the value further from a sensory-motor perspective, and provide tips to make family meals more successful.
Children develop their perceptions of food over time through their senses: seeing, smelling, touch and taste. Exposure at the table to other’s plates is a great first experience to new foods. For example, a baby or young toddler who is not yet eating mature foods, is still learning about these foods through sight and smell while sitting at the table with family.
Also, as young children are developing food manipulation skills, including finger feeding, use of fork and spoon, drinking from a cup and straw and cutting with a fork and knife, consistent modeling from caregivers is crucial.
Adding routine and creating a supportive environment will greatly improve the eating experience, such as:
- Children should sit at the table for meals, with other eaters, three times per day. If your child is not yet sitting three times per day, gradually increase daily meals over time. It will take time and consistency, but your dedication will pay off in the end.
- Children 12-months-old and older should assist in setting the table and cleaning up in order to add structure to mealtimes. Very young children can place spoons or napkins in the table to set up and can drop spoons into the sink and wipe the table for clean up. Older children should pay a large role in setting up and cleaning after meals.
- Starting at 6-months of age, children can be expected to sit a the table for meals for 20 minutes. If children are learning to sit at the table for 20 minutes, redirect escape attempts with “it’s not time to clean up”. A visual timer may be a good tool to trial with your child. Young children who need to be strapped into highchairs or booster chairs should not sit more than 20 minutes. Children who are sitting in regular chairs may be allowed to sit more than 20 minutes, but should not be expected to sit more than 20 minutes until early adolescence.
- Children should be positioned so that they can observe others eating during mealtimes. I prefer smaller feeding chairs that position the child at eyelevel with the rest of the family, versus large, stand alone high chairs.
- Conversations and interactions should stay positive throughout. It is essentials that the family table be associated with a positive and safe environment. Many parents may inadvertently create a negative environment by venting about their day at the dinner table. Also, if children are demonstrating undesirable behavior at the dinner table, redirection with a calm, yet assertive tone is best. Time outs are not ideal since they can reinforce escaping from the task of sitting at the table.
- Parents should focus on the enjoyment of eating instead of volume. This is by far one of the hardest principles for parents. In my own home, I frequently catch myself focusing on the short term accomplishment of volume. This leads to power struggles, frustration and the child having a high arousal state. Children’s appetites are suppressed by adrenaline (the “fight or flight” hormone) when they enter a high arousal state. Instead, as parents, we need our behavior and parenting decision support the enjoyment of eating. In those moments I remind myself that in the long term, children will eat more volume and have better nutritional variety if the enjoyment of eating is always the first priority.