Making Mealtime Memorable for Baby

by Karen Barrow

Kicking, crying, screaming and flying peas -- the dinner table doesn't have to be a battleground for you and your child. In fact, preventing such scenes in your kitchen is probably the best way to ensure that your child eats a satisfying meal for his stomach and your mental health.

"Feeding is about so much more than nourishing your child," says Clair Lerner, a social worker and co-author of a new booklet, "Healthy from the Start," published by Zero to Three, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.

Giving your child control, choice and autonomy are some of the tips suggested by this booklet to help your child learn that mealtime is a time of investigation and curiosity, not a time of stress.

"Eating should be a pleasurable experience shared by parent and child," says Lerner. "You don't want mealtime to be a struggle. This makes eating fraught with tension which can be a significant obstacle to establishing healthy eating patterns."

Other tips to make meals more peaceful include:

  • Remembering meals are about more than food. They are a quiet time to sit with your child and build a strong relationship. Turn off the television, talk to your child throughout a meal, and don't let him or her eat alone.

  • Create routines. Sharing something about your day or saying a blessing before every meal can help children look forward to mealtime.

  • Establish standard meal times. Once your child is nine months old, it is a good idea to set up a regular schedule of meal and snack times. When a meal comes, say to your child, "You must be feeling hungry." This helps your child figure out what hunger feels like and link it to eating.

  • Offer several food options. Put three or four different choices on your child's plate. This will help ensure that your child will choose a healthy diet and also allow your child to feel in control of what he or she is eating.

  • Don't force a baby to eat. Shoving spoonfuls of applesauce into your child's mouth will often cause a child to begin refusing food and eat less. Also, let your child hold a spoon while you feed them or let your baby eat with his or her fingers.

  • Offer a child a healthy snack between meals. Cheese, crackers or fruit between meals are a good option for children who don't eat a lot at mealtime. It puts less pressure on them to clear their plate and allows you to know that they are not hungry. However, juice should be limited to no more than 4 ounces a day, as it has a lot of sugar, which tends to make children feel less hungry at meals.

  • Let children leave the table. Babies and toddlers get restless when they sit still for too long. A meal for a child shouldn't last more than 20 minutes. After that, if he gets fussy let him get up and walk around.

  • Don't give up on new foods. If may take 15 attempts of offering a child a new food to get him or her to try it. Let your child see you eat it, then let him touch and lick the new option.

  • Don't bribe your child. Making deals like "two more bites and you'll get dessert," set a bad precedent. Eating healthy food should be its own reward.

Most importantly, reminds Lerner, every child grows at a different rate. Don't be so hung up on how much children eat, if they grow well and have the energy to play.

If you are concerned about your child's eating or energy level, speak with your doctor.

Karen Barrow is a copyeditor/writer. She has written for Healthology, the New York Sun, Science World, Super Science and The Jewish Week. She obtained a master's degree in biomedical journalism from New York University and a bachelor's degree in biology from Cornell University.

Copyright © Karen Barrow. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.