3 Ways to Encourage Toddler Independence at Mealtimes

More relaxed mealtimes? Yes, Please!

toddler eating pasta
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Mealtimes with small children can be chaotic, to say the least. Among the common issues – toddlers who refuse to try new foods, make major messes, and throw tantrums. While a parent's immediate reaction might be to micromanage mealtime, encouraging a toddler’s independence might actually result in more peaceful meals. 

“There are a lot of aspects to independence at mealtime. One of the most important is that your toddler wants to do what you’re doing as the adult – they are mimicking and that’s how they’re learning.

Toddlers have spent the first 18 months of their lives not being as mobile, and they’ve been watching all of the people in their lives do these amazing things like feed themselves. Now that the toddler is mobile, they’re physically able, with practice, do the same things,” said Whitney Parchman, founder and director of Joyful Day Montessori in Forest Park, Illinois.

Here are three easy ways to help promote a toddler's independence during mealtimes: 

Give the toddler a low drawer or cabinet in the kitchen.

Stash your toddler’s kid-sized plates, cups, and utensils in a drawer or cabinet that they are able to access. When it’s lunch or dinner time, let your toddler help you prepare the table for the meal.

“If you have a drawer or low shelf that accessible, you can say to your toddler, ‘It’s time to set the table.’ You set the adult things and they have the opportunity to set their own place,” said Parchman.

Allowing your toddler to participate, not only builds their confidence, skills and independence, it also can help you. “It might take time up front because you might have to direct them – first it’s the placemat, then it’s the plate, but once the toddler has it down, and they see that’s how you’re doing it, ultimately it’s going to save you time,” said Parchman.

Use ‘authentic’ materials.

Sippy cups are great for traveling, but if you’re at home, choose cups and plates that are similar to what the adults are using. In addition to wanting to be like mom and dad, if a toddler doesn’t have the opportunity to drink water out of a glass, he won't have the opportunity to spill that water and learn the natural consequence.

“In our culture, we don’t like messes, but if a toddler is showing intelligence behind an action, like attempting to drink water from a glass and they happen to spill, that’s perfectly acceptable and, as adults, we need to be ok with that," said Parchman. "If your child is pouring water on the floor for cause and effect, they are showing intelligence behind the action; however, that is an activity better used outdoors or in the bathtub. The adult may tell the child, 'I the water is for drinking.' If the child repeats the action then is the time to say, 'I see you are finished using the glass. We will try again tomorrow.' There is a learning curve and you’re trying to guide them into independence.

You need boundaries, but within those boundaries you’re allowing them the opportunity to make mistakes, like spilling."

Parchman recommends looking for child-sized plates, cups and utensils that are the same materials as what mom and dad are using. To keep the costs down, Parchman suggests buying appetizer plates at Goodwill, shot glasses for water and creamers to use as pitchers at restaurant supply stores, and appetizer forks and spoons at stores that carry housewares.

Involve toddlers in food prep.

If you’re having trouble convincing your toddler to try different foods, unless there are specific health or allergy issues, there’s no reason to give your  child a different meal. Instead, to get them excited about what they are eating, try involving them in the preparation.

“Unless there are special circumstances, toddlers should eat what the adults are eating. If you involve your child in food preparation, they will feel like they made the food themselves and they will be excited to try it. Choose manageable activities, like mixing ingredients. You might have them do something with you or alongside you, said Parchman.

These recommendations may seem a little overwhelming, but doing the work upfront to teach your toddler how to be more independent will eventually result in calmer mealtimes. 

"We do things for our children because, on the front end, its easier," said Parchman, "The sooner you set the tone for independence, the better." 

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