1. Toddlers
  2. Nutrition & fitness
  3. Mealtime

Eating family meals with toddlers

1-3 years

Eating family meals with toddlers is important for many reasons. Enjoying regular meals with your family helps your toddler learn healthy eating habits, develop an interest in food, and learn about conversation and company. They’re also great times to share your family values.

Family meals and healthy eating

You are your child’s most important role model. Your child learns from you and will want to do what you do. So if you want your toddler to eat well, it’s a good idea to let her see you eating well yourself.

Family meals are great times for you to do this. You can model healthy eating by making sure your family meals have lots of vegetables for you all to enjoy, plus a wide variety of foods from the other main food groups.

If you help your toddler develop healthy eating habits like enjoying vegetables and eating breakfast every day, it sets up healthy habits for life. This is important as your child gets older and wants to try foods that his friends (and the children on commercials) eat.

Healthy eating habits now help to reduce your child’s chances of developing disordered eating later in life.

Toddler not eating? Try not to worry about what your toddler eats – or doesn’t eat! – in one meal or even in a day. Children’s appetites go up and down all the time. If you look at what your toddler eats over a whole week instead, you’ll probably see she’s eating what she needs. If you’re worried about your child’s eating habits, make an appointment to see a dietitian or your GP.

Getting children interested in food

Family meals can really help if you have a fussy eater in the family. Watching parents and big brothers and sisters eating different kinds of healthy foods at family meals can encourage your toddler to have a go too.

If you get your child involved in planning and cooking healthy family meals, he’s likely to feel involved and proud of what he’s done – and this makes him more likely to eat what you’ve prepared together.

When they help to make family meals, children also learn a lot about food and develop a true appreciation for it.

Video

Making dinner and involving your child

3:58

Even young children can help get dinner ready. The parents in this video give their daughters jobs as part of preparing an evening meal. The children learn about cooking healthy food, and the family spends time together at mealtime.

Family meals, routines and values

Eating together as a family whenever you can helps your toddler learn about some of the things your family values. For example, some people use family meals as a regular chance to sit together and catch up on each other’s news.

If mealtimes are a happy part of your daily routine, when the family chats around the table, your child will look forward to meals and enjoy being there. Family meals can strengthen your family relationships and your child’s sense of belonging.

Setting aside regular times for family meals also helps get your child into an eating routine. A routine can help if your child sometimes gets distracted or is tired at the end of the day and less interested in the evening meal. When children know that it’s time to eat with the family, it can keep them interested in the meal.

Also, an eating routine that’s based on three healthy family meals and a couple of healthy snacks can help you and your child avoid too much unhealthy snacking between meals throughout the day.

If table manners are important to you, family meals together are a chance to lead by example and show good table manners yourself. You can also point out the benefits of good table manners to your toddler. For example, you could say, ‘It’s much easier to hear what you’re saying when you don’t talk with food in your mouth!’. But most children don’t grasp the finer points of table manners until they’re around five years old, so try not to expect too much.

It’s best to turn off the TV and other screens during family meals. This stops your family from being distracted and helps your toddler to focus on eating and to know when she’s full.

Sitting while eating is important to prevent choking. If toddlers walk around or play while they’re eating, they stop concentrating on what’s in their mouths. If you all sit down together to eat at family meals, it can encourage your toddler to sit down too.

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Last updated or reviewed
26-04-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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