How to Enjoy a Holiday Meal with Toddlers

It’s a few days until Christmas and I’ve been asked to share advice for how to enjoy a holiday meal with toddlers. Well actually here’s what this parent wrote:

Christmas dinner has never gone well in regards to my kids. They are over-excited, tired and the food on the table often looks somewhat different from what they are used to. Literally for the last 2 years my kids ate nothing at dinner but bread. Nothing. They wouldn’t even try a bite. Of course all my relatives are there watching this and I shouldn’t care but it does kind of embarrass me and make be stressed. Then of course, they want to get down from the table, while all the adults are only just getting started. The whole thing has been a bit of a mess.”

Does this sound familiar?

It sure does to me – I have a 5-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew. That pretty much spot-on describes my Christmas dinner the last few years. Imagine how it feels to have your kids act like that when your sister-in-law is a child-feeding expert!

I wish that I had a magical solution that I could offer. But I don’t. The reality is that Christmas is a super exciting day for kids. There’s the visit from Santa, the lights on the tree, presents, no regular routine of daycare or preschool, either a house full of guests or a drive to an unusual house full of people, meals at unusual times and goodies all day long, less physical activity than usual, and perhaps even a missed nap. And, after all that, we expect them to sit quietly and eat a meal with foods that are totally unusual.

Quite frankly, it’s an expectation that most toddlers and preschoolers just can’t fill. They just aren’t developmentally ready to control their behavior after an exciting and exhausting day like that.

So, until the kids are a little older we need to adjust our expectations (and grow a thicker skin for those un-approving looks from relatives).

It’s not the end of the world if kids eat nothing but bread for dinner. The following day you can start getting things back to normal. Also, provide your kids with lots of fruits and veggies between now and Christmas day to create some balance.

When they’re finished eating (even if they’ve eaten only 2 bites), let the kids leave the table and play by themselves. This way you can enjoy your dinner.

In the blink of an eye your kids will be old enough that they can sit through (and eat something) at the Christmas dinner. However, along with this comes no longer believing in Santa and a lack of excitement with the glow of the tree. In other words, enjoy the magic of Christmas at this age while it lasts, uneaten dinner and all.

And, if you do want to help your kids learn the skills to behave well at holiday meals when they roll around next year, start with these steps next month.

Step 1: Check in with your own behavior. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Do you eat standing at the kitchen counter? While walking down the sidewalk? While driving? You’re teaching that one doesn’t have to sit at a table to eat.

Many Moms I know are like a jack-in-the-box during meals, getting up every 30 seconds to grab something from the kitchen. Stop. Before the meal starts, gather within reach (e.g. in the centre of the table) what you expect you’ll need during the meal. This might mean serving foods family-style so people can help themselves to seconds and/or having a cloth at the table to wipe up spills. Let phone calls go to voicemail and don’t check texts/ emails.

Step #2: Set appropriate expectations. I know that it’s going to come as a shock to you (not) that toddlers and preschoolers don’t like to sit still for long periods of time. To them it’s quite boring. So don’t expect them to enjoy sitting for an hour over a meal. An age-appropriate expectation is to stay at the table until they are finished eating. Or, until they are finished eating and a few minutes longer. An example is staying at the table after they’ve finished eating the number of minutes as they are old (2 minutes for a 2 year old, 5 minutes for a 5 year old).

Step #3: Explain to your child that there will be a new rule at meals. She is free to get up from the table when she is “all done”. But, if she gets up from the table, she is choosing to be “all done”. Which means that her plate is being cleared to the kitchen and there will not be any more dinner for her to eat. The next time that she will be offered something to eat is ___________ (fill in the blank with your family’s routine e.g. bedtime snack, breakfast the next morning, etc). Be clear that when she chooses to leave the table she can no longer come back for more bites.

Step #4: Implement the Boundaries. Now just because you explained the new rules to your child, don’t expect him to truly understand them the first day. When your child moves to get up from the table, remind him of the new rule. And ask him if he’s really all done.

Now’s the tough part, you need to follow through on the rule. Remove his plate from the table and continue on with your meal. When he circles back to the table expecting to take two more bites, remind him that he chose to be all done, so it means that he doesn’t get any more bites of dinner. Remind him when the next meal or snack will be (e.g. bedtime snack, breakfast, etc).

He’s likely to protest this new rule (that’s his job as a toddler/ preschooler). It’s important not to give in and let him take some bites. If you do then you’re letting him know that the rule doesn’t really exist. You’re teaching him that he can leave the table and make a fuss and he will get more food.

Serve the next meal or snack at the usual time. Prepare more food than usual at this next meal/ snack because he’ll likely eat extra because he’s hungry from not eating enough previously.

But, don’t provide your child a food handout or extra snack because they made a poor choice at the meal. Yes it will feel awful that you know your child is hungry. But remember, your child has 3 – 5 other opportunities to eat each day. This isn’t doing their nutritional health any harm. And, by getting into the routine now of sitting to eat, your child will be better meeting his nutrition needs in the long term.

Extra success tip: Serve a dish that your child usually eats well (e.g. a favourite food) at the meal that’s first time that you’re implementing the new rule. This way they have more motivation to eat until they’ve “all done”.

How Long Until You See Results?

By experiencing the natural consequences of his/her actions (i.e. being hungry for an hour or two), your child will learn in a couple of days that he/she needs to stay sitting at the table until they’re really “all done.”

The longer that your child has been allowed to get up from the table, the longer it’ll take for the new rule to stick.

Stronger-willed kids tend to take longer to adapt to change too.

Sure there are going to be exceptions – such as your child knocks over a full glass of water and it’s going to take a mop to clean it up. Or, your child honestly does need to use the potty. But do make these the exceptions – not the rule. And, your child will quickly learn the skill of staying at the table for a meal.

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Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD

Child-Feeding Expert

Helping Moms and Dads support their picky eaters to try new foods on their own (without being forceful or sneaky)

Twitter: @kristenyarker

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