Toddler-friendly mealtimes
How to enjoy toddler-friendly mealtimes

By the time your baby has grown enough to be a Big Girl sitting up in her highchair, you will be starting to think about introducing a family mealtime where everyone can sit down together to enjoy each other’s company and eat together as a family. But is this actually possible with a toddler in the house?

As long as you can find a time that suits everyone’s hunger – early enough that your toddler doesn’t get too hungry or tired, and late enough that you won’t need another meal before bedtime – there is no reason why your family can’t sit down together to enjoy a meal.

Teaching your toddler mealtime behaviour

Toddlers are messy little humans who will never be able to sit quietly and patiently and eat without requiring substantial cleaning up later. Once you make peace with these facts, there are some things you can do to ensure that your toddler behaves as nicely as she can at the dinner table:

  • Teach her to sit down at mealtimes.

    Toddlers generally don’t like keeping still and prefer to constantly get down from the table during dinner. Aside from the choking risk attached to eating while she’s running around, it is worth investing the time it will take to teach your toddler to stay at the table as she will come to enjoy this valuable family time. Make sure that you are being a good role model too and don’t eat and run during your busy day.
  • Establish a mealtime routine.

    With a routine in place, your toddler will learn to associate dinner time with certain behaviour expectations. Keep distractions such as the TV to a minimum, so the family can interact during this time.
  • Have dinner ready when you call your toddler to the table.

    Your toddler is not strong on patience, so wasting good time sitting at an empty table is never going to make her happy – make sure that all her ‘sitting down time’ is spent eating!
  • Finish mealtimes.

    If your toddler won’t stay at the table and says she isn’t hungry, finish the meal.  Simply clear the table and move on.
  • Compliment your toddler on her good behaviour at the table.

    There is nothing your toddler loves more than being praised by mum so keep the compliments coming when she’s behaving well.

How to keep mess to a minimum

Be prepared – your toddler will make a mess. And it won’t necessarily be on purpose! Your toddler’s gross motor skills are not sophisticated enough to be able to manage cutlery without some mishaps. The best ways you can keep the mess to a minimum is by:

  • Throwing down a plastic sheet under your toddler’s chair
  • Pre-cutting foods into toddler-friendly sizes
  • Allowing your toddler to use her fingers instead of cutlery
  • Reminding your toddler that food is for eating – not for throwing, squishing or playing

Making mealtimes enjoyable

When your toddler is refusing to sit at the table, refusing to eat or throwing food, you may just want to throw your hands up in the air and give up on the idea of the whole family sitting down together to share a meal and the day’s events. But don’t give up! It will take some time for your toddler to understand what mealtimes are about and the type of behaviour you expect from her. In the meantime, try to:

  • Avoid spending too much time on meal preparation.

    If your toddler isn’t eating, or is throwing food around, keep things simple to avoid getting stressed and angry about how much time and energy you’ve just spent putting the meal together.
  • Keep mealtimes relaxed and enjoyable.

    If your toddler is behaving badly, try and ignore the behaviour and instead focus on another family member.
  • Avoid getting into mealtime battles with your toddler.

    Food refusal is often the result of a power game between mum and child, so keep things simple by not entering onto the battlefield.
  • Serve toddler-sized meals.

    Your toddler’s tummy is a fraction of the size of yours so it will take a comparatively small amount of food to fill her up.
  • Use non-breakable plates and cups.

    There’s no great tragedy if your toddler’s plate ends up on the floor if it’s made out of a toddler-friendly material such as melamine.
  • Don’t force your child to eat.

    Nothing upsets a child faster than being forced to either eat everything on their plate, or a particular food. Children are just like adults and have their likes and dislikes, just as their appetites change each day.
  • Encourage self-feeding.

    It may be messy and it may be slow but self-feeding is a skill you want your toddler to develop and it generally, being in charge of the spoon will make her happier to sit at the table longer to finish her meal.


Healthy children do not voluntarily starve themselves. If your toddler says she’s not hungry, listen to her. And if she suddenly becomes hungry immediately after a meal, offer her a small healthy snack to keep her going til the next meal.



This article was written by Ella Walsh for Kidspot, New Zealand's best resource for family health. Sources include Vic Govt's Better Health Channel.

Last revised: Tuesday, 16 March 2010

This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.

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