Toddler picky eating

Tales from the Dinner Table: Toddlers and Table Manners

As parents, we have enough on our plates already without worrying about the mammoth mess that is mealtimes with babies and toddlers. Unfortunately though, said mess is an unavoidable part of parenting. The key is to understand that the mess is temporary and learning table manners will come in time for your little ones. For now, it’s important to have realistic expectations and recognise that messy meals are a crucial part of a child's developmental journey.

Understanding the Mess

Babies and toddlers aren't intentionally trying to be impolite, disrespectful or naughty when they make a mess during meals. They are, in fact, learning to feed themselves in a developmentally appropriate way. Most toddlers lack the fine motor skills to eat without getting food everywhere until they've had lots and lots of practice.

Allowing space for messy mealtimes is essential for your child's development. When little ones touch, feel and squish food in their hands, they're more likely to put it in their mouths. And when they’re comfortable putting the food in their mouths (even if only to spit it back out again!) they’re more likely to eat it. And yes, all this exploration and trial and error comes with a whole bunch of mess! But avoiding this mess by wiping their hands or face between bites, could hinder their interaction with different textures and tastes, potentially contributing to fussy or picky eating. 

Embracing the Mess

While it may be challenging to see your baby covered in food, it's crucial to embrace the mess as a temporary and necessary phase of their development. Messy mealtimes are how they learn about the world of food, textures, and tastes. One day, with patience and practice, they will become more tidy eaters, learn which end of the spoon is which, and no longer use spaghetti sauce like foundation. 

Now I totally get that ‘embracing the mess’ is easier said than done. Especially for those of us who prefer things to be on the neater or cleaner side. In your head you may know the importance of letting your little one get dirty but when you see it happening all you can think about is the mountain of washing it will lead to later on. 

Beyond the Mess

One of my favorite parenting quotes is “everything in parenting is temporary. And that is both a relief and a heartbreak.” And it’s so true for messy eating too. It’s a phase. It’s a part of the learning journey and your little one will move through it and become a respectable human being at the dinner table in time. 

Giving them the freedom to explore and modeling table manners yourself will provide them with all they need to adopt proper eating habits in their own time. It’s not always possible to eat every meal with both parents (or even with one parent in single parent families) all the time. But having an adult to role model the proper way to use utensils, polite ways to ask for a second helping, staying at the table until the meal is finished etc whenever possible is a great way to help your littlie learn table manners.

Cleaning the Mess

There are a couple of ways you can make clean up after a messy meal a whole lot easier:

  1. Smock Bibs: Long sleeve smock bibs will keep the food off your little ones clothes so at least you won’t need to worry about changing or washing them straight after the meal. Waterproof material will also help by ensuring nothing soaks through onto bub’s clothes and allowing you to wipe up small messes that don’t require washing the bib.
  2. Messy Mats: Along with getting themselves all messy, little ones tend to drop a fair portion of their meals on the ground. A waterproof Messy Mat under the high chair is a super easy way to save heaps of time cleaning up after a meal. Simply pick the mat up, shake off any food into the bin and either wipe clean or pop in the wash.

Bonus tip - both Ellie Bub Smock Bibs and Messy Mats can also be used for messy and sensory play time as well as messy meals!

In the grand scheme of parenting, messy mealtimes are a small but important chapter. Embracing the mess doesn't mean you’re setting your little one up to make a mess at dinner for the rest of their lives; they will get there in their own time and their own way. Remember Mama, the mess is temporary, but the memories last a lifetime.

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