Tips for Happier Toddler Mealtimes from a Pediatric OT

Tips for Happier Toddler Mealtimes from a Pediatric OT
Tips for Happier Toddler Mealtimes from a Pediatric OT
By Jessica Rapp Irwin, OTR/L
Founder of Rooted in Routine and mom of two

As the parent of a toddler, you know that toddlers + food can bring up a whole lot of emotions! 

Many toddler parents struggle with things like picky eating, tantrums when asked to come to the table, preferences for snacks vs. meals, and more. It can feel really overwhelming and stressful to deal with this every single day (even multiple times per day!) for weeks, months, and even years.

While it is normal for toddlers to have preferences for certain foods and to have emotional reactions throughout the day (including at meals), mealtimes with your toddler don’t have to be so stressful.

In fact, there is research to suggest that how a parent or caregiver structures and offers meals in their home impacts their child’s current and future eating behaviors. This should not put the blame on you for any of your toddler’s eating struggles, but rather empower you to make intentional, age-appropriate choices for how to structure mealtimes in your home.

While you can’t force a child to sit perfectly still at the table and eat every vegetable on their plate (wouldn’t that be nice?!), you CAN make intentional choices and set appropriate boundaries surrounding meals that greatly increase the likelihood that your toddler will come to the table happily and eat the appropriate amount of food for their body at that point in time.

This takes consistent effort and holding of boundaries, while also tuning into your child’s temperament and personality, as well as considering your family’s mealtime values and cultural preferences.

Here are my top tips for how to make mealtimes with your toddler go more smoothly and feel less stressful. These tips are great for toddlers between the ages of 1-4, but they work great for older kids as well!

1. Implement a consistent pre-mealtime routine

A pre-mealtime routine consists of a short sequence of steps that you do every single time prior to each meal. If your toddler has trouble coming to the table for meals, this one can be a game-changer! Eating can be a very stressful, unknown experience for a lot of children, especially if new foods are being introduced. A predictable pre-mealtime routine helps a child know what to generally expect, calming any anxieties and increasing the likelihood of compliant behavior. 

Here is an example of a pre-mealtime routine for a toddler:

  • Give a 3-minute warning that mealtime is coming (*Bonus: have your toddler help you set a timer!)
  • Say “bye-bye” to previous activity. For example, say “Bye toys! See you after dinner!”
  • Wash hands together (*Bonus: sing a hand-washing song to make it fun)
  • Transition to the high chair / table together

(Note: Make sure the food is actually ready before you start this routine. Otherwise your toddler will be expected to wait which can make the transition to mealtime even harder!)

I love using the Time Timer Visual Scheduler to “show” your toddler the steps of their routine, with the added bonus of having a visual timer built right in. This works great to help your child see each step as it comes up.

Feel free to adjust the specific steps of your pre-mealtime routine as needed to fit your child and your family. If you have older children, I recommend that you tell them in advance that the “rules” are going to change and walk them through each step. Give it a few weeks to really sink in but be consistent, as that is the most important part.

2. Have age-appropriate expectations for how long mealtime lasts

Most parents and caregivers have too high of an expectation for how long we expect our toddler to be able to sit at the table for a meal. Most toddlers can be expected to sit for 5-10 minutes, on average. Of course, there is variability for each unique child, so some will be able to sit and eat for much longer, but if your child is struggling, start small!

Try setting a visual timer for two minutes and explain that they can get up when the timer goes off. Rather than this being viewed as a punishment, keep it positive, fun, and light-hearted. As time goes on, you can increase the time to work up to an age-appropriate amount of time.

You also get to decide on the rules for your family and whether or not you will allow your child to get up and play after they finish eating, or set the expectation that they can sit and enjoy each other’s company until everyone else is done. This is truly a personal choice!

3. Eat together as a family

One of the best ways to help a toddler remain at the table during mealtime is to sit and eat with them. Eating together as a family has SO many positive benefits for toddlers and young children, including helping to establish a healthy relationship with food, decrease picky eating, and promote healthy social-emotional skills.

Children have a strong desire to be close to their parents and caregivers, and mealtimes are no exception. They will be much more likely to want to come to the table and want to eat their food if you are there with them! They also learn so many mealtime-related skills by watching you sit and eat with them, such as how to properly use utensils, wipe their mouth, cut their food with a knife, drink from a cup, etc.

This does not need to happen every meal and does not need to look perfect. A “family mealtime” is defined as one child (or multiple children) and at least one other adult or caregiver. So, if some family members aren’t able to eat together for every meal, that’s okay! Just try to prioritize it as often as you can. Even one meal per day or a couple of meals per week is a great goal.

4. Make mealtime fun!

Keep the energy and mood of mealtime positive and fun. While it can feel stressful and overwhelming when your toddler doesn’t want to eat what you served or is about to throw a tantrum, remember that your energy sets the tone for the meal.

Try to take the focus away from your toddler and the food during mealtime. Don’t ask them to take a certain amount of bites or pressure them to eat or finish certain foods. Don’t stare at them the entire mealtime and track every bite that goes into their mouth. All of these things cause them to feel pressure, which is going to negatively impact their association with mealtime and eating. They are actually more likely to try a new food if they a) see a parent or another family member eating that food, and b) are NOT told explicitly to try it.

When your toddler feels less pressure at mealtimes, they typically end up eating more!

So what should you do instead? Talk about topics other than food, tell funny stories, laugh together, and simply enjoy one another’s company. If your toddler is young or is not yet speaking, you can still laugh, smile, and talk through things out loud even if they cannot answer you back quite yet. If there are more than just the two of you at the table, talk to your spouse, your older child, or whoever else is there, taking the pressure off your toddler. This allows for a low-stress, low pressure environment, which will lead to your child’s nervous system being in a calm state and therefore allow them to enjoy mealtime more. Plus, it will be SO much less stressful for you!

As always, individualize each tip to fit your unique child and your family’s beliefs and values. And remember - it can take time to see changes in your toddler’s eating habits or behaviors surrounding mealtimes. Be consistent and don’t give up!

Click here to download my FREE Family Mealtime Routine Chart - tape it to your fridge to help keep yourself accountable for establishing a positive family mealtime routine each day.

Looking for more guidance on how to structure your toddler’s daily routine? Struggling with specific parts of the day like bedtime, picky eating during meals, or tantrums? Check out my COMPREHENSIVE DAILY ROUTINE GUIDES. These multi-page digital download guides will teach you exactly how to structure your child’s routine and troubleshoot common toddler issues with simple and realistic tips and strategies that work! Grab the 2-3 Year Guide or the 3-5 Year Guide to match your child’s age.

Jessica Headshot

Jessica Rapp Irwin, OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist, childhood routine expert, and lover of all things child development. She is the founder of Rooted in Routine, an online parenting education community and platform,, to help parents learn simple, easy to implement routines for optimal child development for babies and young kids. She is passionate about educating parents on NORMAL, HEALTHY development, which is often simpler than we think. Jessica’s approach is largely rooted in going back to the basics to help you establish solid, age-appropriate routines for your child for things like eating, play, and sleep. She believes this is the most important foundation you can provide for your child - and she wants to help you do just that!

Learn more about Jessica here and follow her on Instagram to connect.

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