Should you make your toddler eat at the table? The simple answer is, “no.” So give up the guilt if you’ve been letting your child make a picnic under the table. Or eat on the couch. Or maybe even in bed.

Yes, the family meal is important. And yes, the family meal usually occurs at a table. But the reason the family meal matters is because a family who dines together usually eats higher quality meals. So if you have to resort to pizza every single night just to get your little cherub to sit still for a minute, then we can forget the higher-quality-meal part of the equation.

The other reason the family meal matters is because it gives parents and children a relaxed time to, well, get to know each other! But if getting your child to the table requires some arm twisting, well, we can forget about the relaxed time together too.

Plus, and here’s the good news, there’s research which shows the benefits of the family meal can be accrued elsewhere. Read Is the Family Meal a Myth?

Parents have three conflicting goals when it comes to feeding toddlers:

  1. Nourish kids with healthy food
  2. Teach kids the right habits (i.e. what, when, where, why, and how much to eat)
  3. Produce children who know—and can practice—table manners

The key is to move back and forth between each one of these goals without undermining the other two.

Are your everyday feeding strategies advancing each of these three goals?

Balance your parenting goals with your child’s developmental needs and personality “quirks.”  Allow some eating on the go, but insist on some daily table time too.  Then, shift the ratio of rewards—attention, fun, and food delights—to make table-time more enticing.  Here’s how:

1) Serve food at the table at least once each day.  Think of this time as table practice time and don’t expect too much.

2) Serve the highest quality foods in the most successful venue.  Make every bite count.  Read 10 Ways Improving Your Kids’ Snacking Will Improve YOUR Life and  “Do No Harm” Snacking.

3) Make a hard-and-fast rule to serve soupy, saucy, and syrupy food only at the table. There’s no reason to risk ruining the carpet, the couch or the car.  Everything else can be made portable. (Sandwich bits in a baggie are often a big hit!)

4) When you serve dessert, do it at the table. Your child will be more eager to sit and stay.

5) Always sit with your toddler at the table; no one wants to dine alone (even if you aren’t eating).

6) If you are going to play eating games, do this at the table, not in other eating areas.  It will make table-time relatively more rewarding.

7) Let your child leave the table after eating, and allow her to come back for dessert.

8) Consider allowing your child to occasionally eat earlier than the adults and to join the meal at the end instead of in the beginning. This will keep table time short and sweet.

9) Make a point of letting your child choose where she wants to eat at least once a day.

10) Lose the mindset that it’s your job to “get your kid to eat.”  Instead, encourage eating by changing the food environment.

Most importantly, give up the guilt.

The guilt won’t get you anywhere.  Neither will the “do-anything” approach to feeding your child. What will get you to your goals, however, is paying attention to the lesson, intentions and habits that you’re teaching.

For more Read When Playing is More Fun than Eating!

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~