Mealtime Manners Begin with Babies

Janet offers advice for handling some of the most common complaints parents share about their children’s mealtime behavior: throwing food on the floor, leaving and then returning to the table, refusing to eat certain foods, and lingering endlessly. Janet shares her view that all of these behaviors reflect 3 basic needs children have at mealtime, and by recognizing and filling those needs, the behaviors ultimately subside.

Transcript of “Mealtime Manners Begin with Babies”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be talking about the mealtime challenges parents face, behaviors like throwing food down, children getting up from the table and wanting to come back and get up and come back, refusing food, picky eating. I don’t even want to eat, or sometimes when children seem to be taking forever at the table, and we’re sitting for a very long time wondering what to do because our child is still seeming to want to eat. And then another parent also asked, “How do I teach my child table manners?” So I’m going to be attempting to cover all of these issues in this podcast.

So just to let you know a little about my process, this may end up on the cutting room floor, but I was thinking about this and just kind of laughing at myself. So, I got this question that I’m going to read, very simple, straightforward, short question, and I thought: Great. I’m going to address that on my podcast this week. And then the more I started thinking about it, what I would say, and how I would help this parent with her issue, I realized I could do at least a five part series of webinars on this topic. And probably still not say everything I want to say. So I get a little overwhelmed, and then I realize: okay, just go for it and share what seems most important. And hopefully it’ll be helpful to people.

Here’s the question I received:

Hi Janet. It was a pleasure reading your book. I have one question. When we say toddler, what age are we referring to, to do specific disciplining, like throwing food on the floor? My baby is one year old and she constantly throws food on the floor. Do you mean I need to not serve food even with a one-year-old?

So this parent has obviously heard my advice about ending a meal if a child is showing you that they’re done, by doing things that they know they’re not supposed to do, like playing around with food or jumping up and coming back.

And for me, this exemplifies the challenge of communicating Magda Gerber‘s approach, which is very nuanced, and can’t really be shared in an Instagram post manner. It’s not about: if you say this thing or have this strategy every time your child does a certain thing, then this will work. This approach is primarily about the way we perceive a child from birth. And if we perceive a person from birth, as Magda suggested that we do, and that this is an aware person… If we perceive that, then the way that we engage with our child, our baby, has to be nuanced. Because as people we have layers; we are in a relationship. Babies want to be in a relationship with us right from the beginning, a person-to-person human relationship where they are active partners.

So it makes sense to me that a lot of things that I share get misconstrued as a one-year-old baby is throwing food on the floor. So you say, “Okay, I’m not going to serve you any more food.” I mean, that sounds abominable, right? It sounds so harsh. And how could you treat a baby that way? And isn’t that a punishment? All of these things come up when we aren’t quite understanding the basis of this approach, which is tuning in to your child, the person.

The wonderful thing about that, well, there’s many wonderful things: parenting is much deeper and more enjoyable and more interesting when we’re actually engaging with a person, rather than a very needy, somewhat passive baby. But it also clarifies so many things when we start to tune in to this person.

So in this case, what is going on when a baby, who is one-year-old, is throwing food down?

The first time that happens, it’s very likely an experiment. Let’s see what happens, cause and effect. Dropping this food, oh, it goes on the floor.  Because babies are explorers and learners and they’re experimenting all the time.

So our baby does that and maybe they feel something from us. They probably do feel something from us, because Alison Gopnik‘s extensive studies show that children are born with a lantern-type attention, as opposed to what we start to develop more as we mature, which is a spotlight attention.

So with a spotlight attention, we can get distracted and miss something going on over here, because I’m focusing over here.

Well, a baby actually can’t do that. They are taking in everything all the time. So even if they’re not looking at us, they’re feeling us, they’re sensing our emotions. They’re sensing if we’re comfortable, for sure. And it’s not something that they can turn on and off. This lantern is always on. They’re always taking us in.

But if we don’t see this as a basically competent person that we’re dealing with, then we’re probably going to be less likely to be attuned.

So if we’re not being that attuned in the situation, if we’re not tuning into the person then, to us, it might seem like she’s just randomly throwing food. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. Just sort of more absent-minded, I’m not intentional, I’m not aware.

But what our baby is actually doing there, even the first time that this happens, where we might say, “Oh, whoops, you dropped that down and it went all the way down to the floor. While you’re eating, I want you to keep the food at the table, please.”

And I’m approaching this whole activity as an intimate activity. I’m not distracting my child and I’m not going to be distracted myself. These are prime caregiving times where children really need our full attention. And we will get more out of it too, that way, than if we’re just trying to get food into a baby. We’re actually kind of teaching, we’re engaging, we’re present, they’re responding to us. And it will feel more satisfying for us as well.

So feeding with the RIE approach, with Magda Gerber’s approach, it’s not just about fueling our child with food, it’s about fueling our relationship.

So when my baby tossed the food down, of course I’m not angry about it and I’m not going to punish her or him. And if my baby starts to do this again, I’m looking in their eyes. And I see that they’re asking a question with this behavior. I sense that you were slightly riled up by this on some level. This is interesting. And I want to know how you feel about this. Am I allowed to do this?

Those are the kinds of questions that they’re asking with that behavior, even the first time. So that’s why I would respond with. “That’s interesting.” Seeing their point of view, and: “Wow, that went down, and now it’s on the floor, splat. Made a little spot there.” But I would be clear even there, “I want you to keep the food either on the table or in your mouth, please.”

I’m letting my child know the answer to their question and their behavior.

If we’re letting this go on and go on, because we’re not sure if our child is present with us or not, or really knows what’s going on, then our child’s question is going unanswered. But again, if we tune in, we will see, they’re not just looking over somewhere else and like tossing food and not aware of what they’re doing. If we’re tuning into them, we’ll see that they are aware. They’ll be looking at us, kind of a question in their eyes.

I mean, the wonderful thing about young children is they don’t wear these masks that we wear as we get older. You can see them. You can see what they’re thinking if we tune in.

If we do tune in, we’re going to see the question in their eyes, somewhere, somehow, we’re going to sense them asking: What do you think of this? And if we continue to let it go on, again, and we’re kind of getting annoyed or we’re puzzled, or we don’t know what to do, but it’s not fun, right? We don’t like it. Our child is going to feel that mixed message coming from us.

The other part of this is that oftentimes when I work with parents or come to houses to do home consultations, I notice that they’re doing something that I’m sure I would have done if I hadn’t learned about this approach and that babies are aware people. They kind of put food in the baby’s mouth while the baby is looking another way. And the babies are not really paying attention.

And it works much better, for a million different reasons, mostly the connection, that we’re actually connecting, that we slow down and say, “Oh, I’ve got this food.” Let’s say we’re, spoon-feeding, “Here’s this food on this spoon. Are you interested in more of this? Do you want this?”

And if they’re looking the other way, we wait until they look. We don’t just put it in their mouth.

So we are asking for their attention on this task, which is important to pay attention to, especially when we’re young, and developing habits — attention to what we’re eating, and that food going into our bodies isn’t just this unconscious situation. We are intentional about it.

This is also why Magda Gerber would say, “Children are ready to eat. They’re not ready to dine.” Meaning, toddlers, they’re not really ready for there to be family meals every time, because with family meals, we’re going to be distracted by the other adult.

We can do a situation where we have multiple children there, and we’re just staying there attuned to all the children as best we can. I do that all the time in the parent — infant, and toddler classes, where we start at 10 or 11 months with children coming to sit on the floor to get their snack. Sometimes there’ll be eight of them and just me. And it’s not perfect, you do miss things, but they have that sense that this is a special time that we’re all paying attention to. And I’m with them a 100%. That’s a part of what we want to nurture here.

Then again, it will be so clear that our baby is showing that they’re done, because we’ll say, “When you throw food down, it seems like you don’t want the food anymore. That’s telling me you’re done eating right?” And we can be holding our child’s hand very slightly, or just putting our hand at the side of their small hand to keep them from grabbing something and throwing something else down. We can stop them right there and say, “Ah, looks like you want to throw that too. So that means you’re done?”

And we wait. And our child will either now put food in their mouth, or they will try that again. And if they try that again, really, they deserve an answer to this question: What happens if I do do it again? Are you going to mean what you say? That’s what they want to know.

So then you would say, “Okay, looks like you are done. You wanted to throw that one down. Okay, thanks for letting me know. I’m going to help you down and put the food away.”

So that’s the level of engagement that I’m suggesting, especially in these beginnings, when babies are learning so many things, so many messages they’re getting through these experiences with us.

Then if you are worried that your child didn’t eat enough, you could have another meal later, an hour and a half later if you feel you need to. That’s always possible. But children do need… they deserve to know the rules, that there are rules, and to have their questions answered.

So let’s say an older child is doing this still. They haven’t gotten the clear message. Then I would do the same thing. Once they know this rule… and we only have to share it once… You can give your child another chance if you feel like they’re not quite getting it. But I would do that again with a lot of attunement. “I’m stopping you. Oops. It looks like you’re trying to take that away. Okay. That’s showing me you’re done. Are you sure?”

They will give us the answer if we are communicating with them as people who want to pay attention to all these things.

These might be the boring things for us. Oh, let me just get this eating thing done. So we can go out and do something. But to young children, every aspect of their life is fascinating, like a novel. What’s going to happen now? What does my parents think? And what’s the rule here?

They feel really good when they know the rule. Then they want to sometimes ask again, is this really a rule? Is this still a rule even though you’re tired? They want that consistency. They crave it. And yes, they are ready for it at a year old.

And so the same approach, if a child was starting to get up from the table, “Oops, looks like you want to get up. I want you to stay sitting until you’re all done.” And maybe you’ve politely shared these rules ahead of time. “Okay, now we’re going to eat. I know sometimes you enjoy throwing food. I don’t want you to drop the food. And I want you to stay here at the table until you’re all done. And if you feel that you need to get up or you feel you need to throw food, then we’ll stop the meal right there until next time.”

It’s not this challenging, punitive thing, which we might tend to do that if, I guess, we’re less confident. Or maybe that was modeled for us, that when you give rules, you have to give it like, “Well, if you don’t do this, then we’re not going to do that.” But we want to be in a partnership with children. That’s what’s going to help them and help us overall with their behavior and all of those specific things, but also develop our relationship in the direction we want it to go, where they don’t need to test out these things as much.

So no, there’s no child that needs to get up and down, run away and come back with eating. I had a very, very active youngest child. But when he was eating, he could sit till he was done. He didn’t sit for very long. My daughters would more linger and they could sit for a longer time. He didn’t want to. But he sat as long as he was eating and then he shot up and off he went. Children can do this. We’ve got to believe in them. They are very aware people, more aware than we are.

So then some other issues that parents have: a child won’t come to eat, or they won’t eat certain food that we want them to eat.

So here’s where children need clarity. What’s the rule? Not just sometimes, I need to know what is it really? And how do you feel about it? And are you going to be okay if I do the normal thing and try other things out to see if you really mean it? Are you comfortable with this rule? Or are you afraid that by having rules around table manners or focusing on eating that I’m not going to eat enough?

I mean, that gets in our way as parents, for sure. The fear, right? We’re afraid. And that’s usually underneath when parents are having issues with mealtime stuff, underneath is this fear that my child won’t eat enough. And it’s really something to look at, because we can’t just wave a wand and make it go away, as we can’t wave a wand and make any feeling we have go away and just be unruffled. I’m fine. If we’re not, we’re not.

The cure for that is to understand it, and then practice focusing on trust that your child does want to thrive, that your child knows their body, and their nutritional needs really better than we do a lot at the time. And that when given healthy options, our child can make those choices and needs to. They need to feel autonomy at mealtime.

So I would set this up as Magda suggested, which is using a small table, which children love when they’re very little, because they get so much autonomy by being able to have their feet on the floor, and get up when they’re done immediately. I have a whole article about that, that I’ll link to called “Baby Table Manners,” I think it is.

But in general, and even when children are having family dinners, it’s wonderful to have bowls of the different types of food that we’re offering. So we’re going to offer maybe three different types of food. At least one that we know our child usually likes, at least one. And then we’re going to just have a little bit on their plate. This really helps with younger children. They can’t dump this whole huge plate of stuff out without us catching it in time.

So having a little bit on their plate, the extra in bowls, so that they can ask for more, or they can point and we help them with the bowl, and they can put a little more on their plate. That way they’re not looking at this overwhelming plate of food that maybe is too much for them at that particular interval. And they have that sense of: I’m deciding that I want to eat this. I’m deciding I want to eat that. Children, especially toddlers, toddlers on up actually, really want that autonomy. And this is the place to give it.

We present the options that we’re comfortable with. From there, we let them decide. And we have in these bowls the most that we would want them to have of that particular item. So if they wanted to eat all of that, then we’re okay with it.

We’re setting ourselves up for success. We’re setting them up for autonomy within the boundaries. Freedom and autonomy have to come for children within boundaries. They don’t feel it when things aren’t clear, when the rules aren’t clear, when they feel these mixed messages from us, or that we have an agenda for them that is maybe infringing on their need for autonomy.

So we really do have to trust, ideally, and it’s hard. I know it’s hard sometimes. But if we really trust, we won’t have these issues. We won’t be here in the position where a child refuses food, because we’re not pushing any particular food, and we’re not pushing them to eat more of a certain food or less of another food that we’ve offered.

We are in charge of a lot here, but from there, children need us to let go. And we kind of have to not just act it, but really be it, be that trusting person. Because even if we’re not saying: Oh, I hope he eats that piece of broccoli there. Children can actually feel that with their lantern attention. And their need for autonomy makes them not choose that even though they might.

So I guess this seems a bit like a poker game, but that’s going to make it flow the best. That’s going to make this all easiest for us. We’re not afraid of the boundaries. And we’re also not afraid of letting go, where our child needs us to let them choose.

And there’s this other issue that parents have brought up with me a lot, where their child is sitting there still wanting to eat and maybe 40 minutes has gone by, or less than that. But we have the sense that our child isn’t really needing to do this, but they’re kind of keeping us there, because they know we really want them to eat and it’s important and we don’t want to rush them. So they’re kind of exploring their power on some level, as children will do. It’s very, very healthy for them to do these things, as learners.

But there, again, if we’re attuned, we will get the answer to what’s going on. We will see our child is actually in slow motion all of a sudden. Our child is looking at us, checking out if we’re feeling impatient, while they pick up food, put it down, take the tiniest bite. We can sense when they’re stalling.

Again, I love young children. They’re so transparent.

If we’re tuning in, and if we trust that there’s a person there, that’s not just out to lunch (I guess that’s a good metaphor for this), then we can sense and trust they are stalling this. And if we’re not afraid of our child not eating enough, if we’ve been focusing on working on that trust overall in them as competent people that want to thrive, then we will be able to say, “It feels like there’s a lot of slowing down going on here,” or, “I think you’re done. So I’m going to put this away.”

Then maybe our child gets upset with us. And very likely those feelings are about something more, are about the baby we’re expecting, or about something that isn’t actually to do with: I really needed to eat more and now you’re not letting me. Trust what you’re seeing there when you’re tuning in.

And yes, there are children who have issues. There was a parent who reached out to me. Her child had a rare disorder and needed certain protein nutrition, or it could be very detrimental to their health. And it was interesting, because she was asking me what to do. She was trying to get her child to eat these certain things and they wouldn’t eat them.

Then she called it at the end of the note, she said, “I have a feeling you’re going to say to approach this as I would medicine or something like that, that your child has to do.” And I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what I would do.” I would make that food into a smoothie or a bar or whatever, I think there was a bar that they could eat, and not let that get in the way of mealtime. Let mealtime be your child’s autonomous decisions. And then before the meal or after whenever you need to, at a time your child isn’t too tired. (That’s another thing, we don’t want mealtimes to be when our child is tired, because tiredness usually takes over hunger. We don’t have as good an appetite when we’re tired, especially children.)

So partner with your child, explore ways for them to feel autonomous in this situation. Make plans together. Listen to their feelings. “Oh, I know you don’t want to do it. Ah, I hear you. It’s a pain, right, to have to do this for your health. You don’t like this. It’s too important. I love you too much. Got to do it.” Partnering with your child.

And she got back to me later and said that was working and thanked me.

So (1) attunement, that’s one aspect of this, (2) clarity and (3) autonomy. Those are the three things our child needs around mealtimes for them to go smoothly.

I really hope some of that helps.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are many of them, and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and an audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.

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