Back To Basics: Realistic Expectations For Mealtimes

Parents get very vexed about why their small three or four-year old cannot sit still through a meal….but if you know about normal development, you will see this is difficult for a six-year-old! 

Here is normal developmental behavior for mealtimes in regard to each age from 12 months through eight years of age:

  • At 12 to 15 months, the gross motor drive is strong – may be difficult to sit and eat a meal, may want to stand in highchair if family using one
  • After 12 months, toddler may go through phase of not being interested in cup
  • 15 to 18 months toddler very interested in self-feeding; may throw food
  • 21 month old may have definite preferences, such as a certain bib, a certain spoon, a certain dish – but may not have the words to express it and therefore becomes frustrated!
  • 24 months – preferences are high as related to taste, form, consistency, color – Think small helpings, teaspoon sized! Ritual demand of eating the same things reaches its height at 2 ½.
  • 3 years old – Eating better, appetite fluctuates less, the child has become a good chewer . On the downside, may dawdle if eats with whole family.
  • 4 years old – Typically talks  a lot, usually has to interrupt meal to go to bathroom, has much trouble sitting still
  • 4 ½ to 5 – A distinct rise in appetite, can listen as well as talk at the dinner table, may use a knife for spreading but not for cutting
  • 6 years – Perpetual activity! Cannot sit still, wiggles in chair, eats with finger, talks with mouth full, cannot finish meal. Preferences and refusals very strong.
  • 7 years –  Handles knives, forks, spoons better than they did at age six although may still use fingers to push food onto fork; liable to pop up from table to see something outside but much more able to sit still than at age six; may participate a bit in conversation at the table or may be silent; may bring the toys he or she was just playing with to the table.
  • 8 years old – can typically use a knife to cut meat; apt to play with silverware or reach across table for food; they talk and argue a lot and tend to interrupt adult conversation so they need your guidance regarding this; tend to eat fast and be done eating before the other members of the family  

    So what can you do to ensure a peaceful mealtime?

    I think one thing is to PLAN what you want your mealtimes to look like.  Here are some questions to stimulate your thoughts:

  • Is everyone just getting food and then scattering or do you actually sit down together? 
  • Do you have everyone set the table and help bring food out? 
  • Does your meal start with a candle lighting or a blessing? 
  • When a small child is done eating before everyone else, what is the rule in your home?  Do they have to stay there until you are done or can they play with something quiet nearby?
  • Does everyone help clean up?  Even toddlers can have a job – if this is your first toddler, you will have to do the job with them, but with subsequent children perhaps a big brother or sister can help the toddler do his or her job.

    These are important questions to consider!  If you know how you want things to be, AND you have realistic expectations for your child’s age AND you keep things short, then you have a much greater chance of meal times being peaceful!Think about this subject, meditate on it and design the family meal time that fits your family culture best!

    Many blessings,


  • 8 thoughts on “Back To Basics: Realistic Expectations For Mealtimes

    1. I was out to dinner with a friend and my 18 month old, I let my daughter get down and run around with some other children in a courtyard in my view. My friend said “don’t you think she’s old enough to sit through dinner?” I was so surprised. It had never crossed my mind.

      We start with a blessing and have candles in the winter, but I think we could all get in the habit of helping more for the set up and clean up.

      Thank you for the clear developmental expectations. (I’ll share them with my friend 🙂 )

    2. Oh I had no idea my boy was so amazing ! He is four and half and since he was two has been using a knife and fork and is usually pretty good at the table. We have always eaten together though so I guess that helps. May help to remember your list for my second boy though – he is going through a hilarious stage of standing up to peer in everyone elses bowl to check what they have!

    3. This is great, thanks. I’ve been wondering about growth and weight gain–my once very fat and robust baby is now a 2.5 year old who has hardly gained an ounce or grown an inch since turning two–dropped down to 8th percentile. She was very slow to start eating food, (almost nothing until she was 18 months) and once weaned at a little over two (my milk dried up due to pregnancy) has been stuck on this plateau. We just did a homeopathic constitutional and her appetite is improving. She is otherwise bright and on track. In general I stay calm and relaxed about what she eats, keep trying to give healthy options and not worry over how much she takes. Still, I’m very curious about what this might indicate in terms of her life sense being impaired (?), or if there are other Steiner ways of looking at this and supporting her.

    4. Pingback: oshane:blog » Blog Archive » Being Patient with My Child

    5. I heard you speak at the LLL GA conference, & I’m new to your blog. Loving it!! Your list made me proud of my newly 4 yr old son, who’s come a long way at the table. Our biggest distraction last year was his constant up & down, & refusal to eat (he wasn’t staying long enough to taste anything, but begging for snacks later.) We implemented a rule that he must ask before leaving the table, & only when he’s “done” (meaning, when he’s ready to stop eating; we don’t require a clean plate). We spent several WEEKS of him screaming because he refused to ask before getting down, & every meal ended with Daddy calming him in his room, & giving him a do-over. That boy was stubbon! But, he finally dos it! He says, “Mommy, I’m done now; can I please get down?” It is fine with us, since he asked nicely, as long as he tried some bites. He may be done a lot quicker than us, but mealtime is much more peaceful! Now to work on the 20 mos old daughter, who wants to get down as soon as brother is done…but keeps coming back for “doggy-bites” (begging at Mama’s leg). 😛

      Thank you for your encouraging & insightful blog!!!

    6. Pingback: This Will Keep You Busy: Links By Age « The Parenting Passageway

    7. Pingback: Mealtimes: Eight Facets Of A Healthy Family Culture | The Parenting Passageway

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