4 tips to make meal times with toddlers more fun

toddler dinnerFed up with the battleground that is the dinner table at every meal? You’re not alone.

Meal times can be a stressful experience with young children. Give your child peas instead of corn and the emotion that surfaces is quite a spectacle. The power battles are endless. Who would have thought food could cause such distress? Before having children I never imagined getting them to eat a variety of nutritious and delicious food would be such an effort, and often an ordeal.

Children quickly learn that food is the easiest area for them to get control, as well as attention.  I find it impossible to keep each of my three daughters happy.  What one eats, the other rejects and at least one child is usually in tears at dinnertime. Miss H eyes the food I present to her suspiciously as though a fatal poisoning is about to take place. Anything she doesn’t like the look of is thrown to the floor with contempt.

Having 3 kids in less than 3 years has meant there are many things I have let go through to the keeper. Food control is one of them. I have simply been too busy, too tired and too pressured to engage in the power battles. Let’s just say there have been long periods in which vegetables have been an elusive part of their diet.

But recently, fed up with the negotiations and whining I decided enough was enough. Things had to change. I didn’t want fussy eaters anymore. And I wanted meal times to be more enjoyable. Here are 4 things that have made meal times more harmonious at our place, and resulted in cleaner plates and more smiles.

1. Eating together and one meal for everyone

Up until 6 months ago I was foolishly cooking 3 different meals for dinner:  a plain, basic meal for Miss H, a slightly more adventurous variation for Miss A and Miss J, and an entirely separate meal for hubby and I to have, in peace, after they were in bed. CRAZY! I was shackled to the kitchen for hours and by the time it got to our dinner I had lost interest in eating altogether.

Now I cook one meal and everyone is expected to eat it. We all sit down to dinner together as a family. Dinner is served at 6 on the dot, enabling hubby just enough time to walk in the door and help me serve up. It means that we are eating less interesting food (spice and flavour are opt ins) but the results have been worth it. The girls are definitely more inclined to try new things if they see their parents are eating it too.



2. Setting the mood (almost sounds romantic)

Half an hour before dinner I blast a “Tidy Up” song! The volume is loud and each day someone gets to choose the tune. Amazingly this simple practice has resulted in a tidy family room floor in minutes. The girls shriek with delight as they frantically dance around the room picking up the hundreds of blocks, puzzle pieces and toys littered across it. It signals that playtime is over and dinner is on the way.

3. Helping set the table

Until recently my kids didn’t really have any ‘chores’ as such and I’ve never been very good at maintaining rewards charts. But I’ve set a few simple chores for the elder two and all of them help me set the table for dinner. Even Miss H carries the cutlery from the kitchen to the table and dumps it on the very edge of the table. Dutifully Miss A then rearranges it all ensuring everyone has the correct knife and fork. I’ve also started giving Miss and Miss J “grown up” bowls and even this simple acknowledgment has made a big difference to their excitement about dinner and the quantities consumed.


4. Placemats/Serving bowls

I credit Nathalie from Easy Peasy Kids with this great suggestion. I bought a cheap laminator from Officeworks and we now transform all their artwork into placemats and each night they choose one for the meal. They have a different placemat for every night of the week. Trust me, this really works so try it! You’ll be amazed to see just how excited they get about eating off something that they have produced with pride. You can also laminate pictures of vegetables and get them to name the vegies, or print and laminate photos ….they love a placemat of themselves!

Presenting the food in bowls on the table and allowing them to serve themselves has also resulted in more food being consumed. I bought some mini tongs from the $2 shop and the girls enjoy choosing the food and serving it up. It can be a little messier but it’s fun and it really has made a difference.

I won’t go so far as to say that dinnertime is peaceful (the interruptions are endless) but since adopting these small changes I have seen a huge improvement in the girls’ appetites and enjoyment of food. I won’t classify them as “foodies” just yet but I can be slightly more adventurous with food now!

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 Do you find meal times stressful? Do you cook a separate meal for the kids or do you eat all together? Advice and tips for fussy eaters welcome!


  1. says

    Great tips Michaela. We recently started doing family dinners, after doing what you used to do as well and realizing it was insanity! Dinner is also at 6pm here and overall it is working better than it was. We are also enjoying not eating so late as we were waiting until the kids went to bed and if they didn’t settle right away it could get quite late. We would be starving and then go to bed too full.

    Your other tips will come in handy too. Keeping them at the table instead of playing has been hard (we now close the playroom door)….but a Tidy Up song is an excellent idea :-)

  2. says

    Oh yes, eating earlier has many benefits for the grown ups too! I was always snacking at about 6 as dinner wasn’t until closer to 8. Now dinner is done and dusted and hubby and I can enjoy an after dinner wine in peace!
    Do try to tidy up song – it’s been a game changer in our household! :-)

    • says

      Yes, it works a treat. And laminating the kids’ artwork is also great for storing it. Instead of their best drawings going “straight to the pool room”, they go straight to the laminator. Much excitement :-)

  3. Lindy says

    Love the placemat idea (really I think I just love the idea of having a laminator at home!). Have you also created artworks to laminate as your placemat? I’ve found that the less hungry my little one is the more fussy he is … I reckon all your hard work in this area will make for beautiful, peaceful family meals in a couple of years x

    • says

      I am “artistically challenged” so, no, I have not created a fabulous piece of artwork for my placemat, but Miss A has created plenty for me!! And I hope you’re right about putting in the effort now for great family meals in the future. I have such happy memories of the dinner table as a child and especially my teens, and I’d love to recreate that environment for my own family. But I am not having 5 children!! :-)

  4. Liz says

    good call michaela. ive been doing the same as well having been kid wrangling now for almost 2 weeks solo and who can be bothered cooking twice. And kids are now pretty good at
    stacking the dishwasher and clearing the table to relieve my load even more!

  5. Leah says

    I’m glad things have improved around the dinner table Mich. We used to do the tidy up song thing at the end of the day but now I just ring a old fashioned bell to summons the kids in for their chores. Strangely, they are much more receptive to the bell than to my shouting! Bell works in the morning too – to signal time to pack bags, and start walking to school…

  6. says

    I like the sound of the bell! Do you feel like a school teacher when you ring it? I suppose they are used to conforming to the bell at school and so it make sense that they would be more compliant. Good tip!

  7. says

    What great ideas. I actually (touch wood) have a really good eater. As soon as I could stretch him out to 6pm for dinner we started eating together and I do find he eats more that way. If he isn’t fussed on the meal I don’t give him something else so he knows it is all he gets and that seems to work well too. LOVE LOVE LOVE the tidy up song idea and the laminator. I think these will be good tools for us going forward. Thanks!

  8. says

    Yeah, I like the idea of presenting just one choice and that’s all. No negotiations. Try the tidy up song and grab a laminator – it makes storing their artwork a lot easier too. Hope your little one continues to be a great eater :-)