8 Hacks to Reduce Stress During Mealtime with Babies and Toddlers (Plus Sample Feeding Schedules)
Updated: Jun 20, 2022
Part of my job as a mom (and I’m guessing part of yours too) is to make food every day that is affordable, nutritious, quick, easy, and tasty! Wow! Not to mention, I’m supposed to do this with a baby on my hip, toddler under foot, and managing the 5:00 pm power struggles and toddler meltdowns calmly.
I know I’m not alone in the struggle for feeding a baby and a toddler day in and day out. And because I’m a firm believer that there’s no such thing as too much advice when it comes to feeding our tiny human beings, I’m here to share what feeding hacks are working for us right now. There are probably many more tips beyond 8. But this is what’s working in my kitchen and dining room table. It could likely change next week!
Save your screen time!
I know that pediatricians tell us that it's a bad idea for children to watch TV or use mobile apps before age 18 months. However, TV can be a very helpful tool if used in a smart way. And that’s just what it has become for our family. Usually, at around 4:30 pm, L (my 2 year old) starts to get tired and hungry and on the verge of his witching hour meltdowns, so I turn on a show for him and I have baby girl sit on the kitchen floor with some toys or safe kitchen utensils. Most of the time she ends up on my hip right before dinner is served around 5 pm.
That gives me thirty solid minutes to prep or finish up dinner. Because we mostly limit TV outside of that time, my son is excited to sit down and watch instead of grumpily begging at my feet for a snack (on most days!)
We turn off the TV and put away other electronics once meals and snacks are served. Sure, they might eat a bit more in front of the screen, but it isn’t just about what and how much they eat. It is also about allowing them to be aware of what they are eating and teaching them to see mealtime as social occasions where they will be required, as they get older, to have good manners at the table at home and in public places. Please, don’t feel judged if you have screens on while your child eats. That’s most definitely not my intention in sharing this. Rather, take this as a call to check your long term priorities and expectations for your little one when it comes to mealtime.
Be realistic with your expectations
For a toddler, we really only can expect them to sit at a meal for 10-15 minutes (including eating time). Some may even get enough to eat in less time. After that, they have a tendency to create such a commotion that it spoils the meal for other family members.
Even when you make meals pleasant, most kiddos at this age will have a hard time with sitting at the table for much longer than that. They have teeny-tiny attention spans and a low ability to sit still. And that's OK! It’s developmentally appropriate for their age!
For babies, you should plan to sit with them during a meal for a good 20-30 minutes, or as long as they are happy sitting in their chair. It’s important your baby has time to experiment with their food, to squish and squeeze, as well as taste everything they want to.
Do not rush them through their meals, or force them to sit at the table for longer than they need. If you get impatient waiting for them to finish their food, my best tip is to try to eat together so you are occupied with your own meal, and some of the pressure is removed from your baby’s eating pattern.
Make sure your toddler is hungry by the time the meal is served but that your baby is not!
Parents often serve dinner too close to afternoon snack or let their kiddo graze throughout the day. Toddlers and older children need to be hungry (not tantrum hungry… just enough) in order to want to eat. Serve meals 2½ to 3 hours after the last meal or snack, so that they have had a chance to get hungry.
Now, a hungry baby won’t eat! This is especially true for babies just starting solids (6-9 months). Usually around 9 months of age is when babies realize that solids can satisfy their hunger. Until then, if they are hungry they will want milk (breast or formula) and not solid foods. I recommend offering milk feeds 30 minutes to an hour before mealtime. This is just a general guideline. Each baby is very unique, so most of all follow your baby’s lead and offer milk feeds on demand.
Bringing everything your need to the table, including yourself!
Set the table with everything you will need for the meal or snack and get your toddler involved in the process. This way you’re not constantly leaving the table to go grab something (this is still a work in progress for me). Bring things like water bottles or cups, utensils, bib, napkins or baby wipes (baby wipes are the centerpiece of our dinner table, lol), everyone’s plates, and anything else you can think you’re going to need.
Also, try to eat with them as much as you can. Kids don’t want dinner. They want you! You’re the most important thing to bring to the dinner table. Even if you’re not hungry or don’t want to actually eat, sit with them, be present. This means more than you think. For them this means they are worthy of our time and attention.
Kids don’t want dinner. They want you! You’re the most important thing to bring to the dinner table.
Wait until mealtime to put your baby in the highchair
I strongly recommend against putting your baby in the highchair as you prep meals. Think of your tot as a ticking time bomb. You have anywhere from five to 25 minutes in the chair before they explode. Use that time wisely (aka for actually eating). Instead, you can do like I do with baby Z, and let your little one spend at least 15 minutes playing safely on the floor nearby as you get the food ready. Or you can also have them on your back in a carrier.
Also, using the highchair exclusively for mealtimes will help your baby get used to sitting at the table with the rest of the family and associate the chair with eating and not with playing. Believe me, in the long run it pays off. Today, L knows to go sit in his chair when I say dinner is ready, and he rarely spends his time at the table (being 5 to 20 minutes) fooling around. Most of our meals look like this…. he sits, he eats what he needs, he asks to be excused once he is done, and he goes find something to play with. Of course, there are days that everything goes south, but that isn’t the norm.
Serve whatever it is that you want to eat
As soon as starting solids, most children can be offered the same meal as the rest of the family (with minor modifications to reduce choking risk). They may need it chopped up so they can manage to feed themselves. Young toddlers may still need help with foods such as yogurt, custard, soup, and other foods that are eaten from a spoon. I can hear you saying ‘they won’t eat what we eat’. They definitely won’t if they are not offered what you eat.
Children adapt to their family’s food, rather than you having to adapt to what you think they might eat. This takes time, sometimes a long time. However, it will happen sooner if there is no pressure to eat any particular food or amount of food.
Avoid resorting to catering to the likes and dislikes of individual family members; otherwise, you’ll end up preparing at least two separate meals, if not more. You might start food preparation in the afternoon and finish much later in the evening after feeding your kiddos, and then later, your partner. In short, you'll be dealing with food, cooking, feeding, and cleaning up for several hours of the evening. I’m the first to tell you that putting nutritious and tasty food at our family’s table is hard work. But trying to please everyone at every single meal will make your job miserable, and you might give up or not be as consistent.
Include at least one “safe” food that you know your child will eat if they are hungry
You will quickly find out which foods your child does and doesn't like at any given moment. It's a constantly moving target, so you have to be nimble. Follow this simple rule and you'll always serve up something they'll eat. Mix whatever they are rejecting with something they love. Try keeping a mental (or physical) list of the foods they love or like, and rotate among those foods. This is typically fruit, bread of any sort, pasta, oatmeal, or rice. When you do this, you can feel confident that your child is not leaving the table hungry, and that makes trying new or disliked foods less intimidating.
Trust your gut, and your kiddo’s gut too!
Let them decide what to eat from what you have offered. Coaxing, bribing or distracting your child usually has the opposite effect to what you want. They are likely to fall for it in the beginning, but not for long!
We need to trust our children’s appetite, knowing that when there is food available, children will eat enough. An infant who is breastfed knows how much milk to take without anyone else knowing the exact quantity they are taking. We feed when the baby is hungry and stop when they show us they have had enough. At every age, it is up to your child to decide how much to eat from the food that you’ve offered. When we don’t let them do their job of deciding how much to eat, we are interfering with their natural hunger and satiety cues. We are giving them the message that we don’t trust their appetite. Unfortunately, this lack of trust can result in children overeating or undereating and not having the body they were meant to have.
So there we are, my 8 hacks to help reduce stress during mealtimes. They definitely help at our table, if I remember to do them all. I’m not perfect and sometimes let things slip. Which is ok. It’s all about progress, and not perfection.
Happy Eating and Feeding,
As always, discuss any concerns with your pediatrician. This post and this site is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. The materials and services provided by this site are for informational purposes only.