What are mealtimes like in your house?
I, for one, know what I would like my dinners to always be like: lengthy and relaxed with uninterrupted conversation and plenty of wine.
You may be able to recreate aspects of this with a young child if that’s your goal, but at the very least you don't want to be THAT FAMILY.
You know the people that I mean.
The ones that you're near to in restaurants who are having a hard time getting their kid(s) to behave well.
Maybe that's you? If so, don't panic - help is at hand.
My kid is the one sitting nicely, eating his salad while another child is picking the pepperoni off his pizza and dropping it into an air conditioning vent (true story).
However, while my 4 year old is well behaved, he didn't just spontaneously start behaving that way.
He was taught! From the start. No excuses, no exceptions.
As time goes by, you can relax your rules and teach exceptions (occasionally now my son is allowed to eat a sandwich in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon) but this must be after a period of very firmly establishing the "proper" way to behave.
Maybe this sounds exhausting, but it's far less exhausting than wrestling your kid to sit down / nagging your kid(s) to behave / worrying about an upcoming public mealtime.
1. "Last chance!"
If food is thrown or spat out, give your toddler a "last chance" warning before the meal is taken away. At 4 years old, our son does not get this warning. Extremely poor behaviour like this signals the end of mealtime for him and it is not a surprise to me that he doesn’t do these things now. Sometimes though he will get a last chance warning for something - 1 warning, that's it.
2. Dessert is a privilege...
... not a right. More minor misdemeanours after one warning at mealtimes in my house result in there being no dessert. There is no nutritional value in most desserts - it is purely for pleasure - so don't feel guilty for doing this! Don't threaten it if you're not going to follow through.
3. Stop snacking so much
If your child is not hungry because they have been allowed to snack throughout the day, they will have little incentive to eat (and sit still) at mealtimes. Make sure that your child is hungry at mealtimes and they will run a lot more smoothly. It won’t solve every problem, but it’s a good start!
If your older child will get offered a snack shortly after a mealtime, this is also a problem. They may behave poorly on purpose at dinner in order to get a snack that they prefer to the meal that you’ve given them. If this sounds familiar, reconsider your snack policy!
4. Model behaviour
Personally, I like my 4-year-old to sit up at the table at meal times using cutlery, a napkin to clean his hands and face, saying “please” and “thank you”, engaging in what the rest of the family is discussing and waiting until everyone has finished before leaving the table. At least one parent will eat with him at breakfast and lunch, and sit with him while he eats his dinner in our house. Your vision may be different; no problem – just make sure to model what it is that you want to see your child doing and make sure that your message is consistent. Good table manners take practice and children copy what they observe.
5. But (s)he eats well at Grandma's house...
If your child behaves better at daycare or grandma’s house for example, watch / ask to find out what is different and apply this to other mealtimes. It's time to get real - your kid is capable of better behaviour and you have some changes to make.
But remember, you can’t just try something once and expect a change! Implementing discipline is always more difficult in the beginning than maintaining the status quo – give it a few weeks before giving up. Every time you take the more difficult route of tackling a behaviour that you don’t like, you are investing in your child’s future behaviours. It will be worth it in the end.
6. Eat at a table
Eating at a table is both good for your child’s social development and for their health as studies have shown that there is a link between eating at a dinner table and a lower BMI. My own son eats his dinner a lot earlier than my husband and me, but I sit with him while he eats and we talk. It’s a perfect time to get to know your child better too. If you have more than one child and they have all mastered the basics, they could be each other’s company at some meals whilst you get some chores done within sight / hearing range.
7. Sit at the table until EVERYONE is finished eating
This one is kinda optional, but I hope I'll convince you to do it... Getting down from the table signals the end of the meal for our son, regardless of when he does this (and now he never does). BUT he is required to sit with the rest of us until we finish eating.
It's stressful, so why do it? Think of the end game! Imagine the scenario in a restaurant where the adults are gulping down their meals while chasing their kids around and frantically trying to get the server's attention compared with the parents calmly finishing their meals while their kid sits quietly! We manage to keep our son sitting at the table with us in two ways: by making the conversation interesting to him and asking him questions and by making the alternative less attractive (such as putting them in time out).
8. Turn off the TV
Watching TV while eating has negative side affects: it distracts your child from social interaction and also from what they are eating, which is linked to a higher BMI and less healthy eating habits. From a behaviour point of view, it may be tempting to put the TV on to keep your kids still, but it's not achieving good table manners in the long term. Also, when out at a restaurant or at someone else's house where there is no TV, your child won't know what is expected of them. You can always introduce the idea of exceptions to the rule or make watching TV at mealtimes an occasional event for an older child if you like, but for younger children or when introducing the concept of table manners, keep your message simple: no TV!
9. Bull in a china shop
Are your expectations too high for a young child? A 2 year old will struggle to use adult cutlery and may accidentally break something. Taking your own plastic bowls and cups to meals away from home may be a better approach for your own sanity. You can try to help them make the transition to more grown up tableware at home where there is less pressure on them (and you). Our son hasn't needed plastic plates since the age of three, as a rough guide.
10. Be reasonable!
If you expect to be able to enjoy the relaxed meal that I described at the start with young children then no, this is not reasonable! You can expect a calm meal with good table manners (and wine if you like!) but lengthy is not going to happen until your child is much older. My approach at home is to enjoy the meal together (and my 4 year old son can manage three courses sitting nicely at the table) and then, when everyone has finished dessert, let him get down to play while the adults linger at the table with their wine. You can’t dictate the eating speed of any child-free adults dining with you, so some adjustments to what you expect of your child may need to be made here! These other adults may be envisaging the meal that I described at the start, which they can have but unfortunately you can not. Sorry!