5 Ways We Simplify Mealtime with Young Children

posted by Andrea | 02/17/2017
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Mealtimes are some of the craziest, busiest, loudest, messiest times for our family — and they happen 3-5 times a day (if you include snacks).

There are times when we finish a meal and I feel like I’ve run a marathon and can’t imagine that I need to do it all over again in a couple more hours. However, I know from eating at friends’ and relatives’ homes that we are not the only crazy, busy, loud, messy bunch around.

In fact, I think there are a few things we do that actually simplify our mealtimes… and since I know so many of you eat with small people every day, I figured I’d share a few ways WE simplify mealtimes with young children! 

1. We keep them strapped into child-size chairs

I realize this might sound crazy, but we literally have straps on all 3 of our kids’ chairs, and if we don’t use the straps, they are all over the place — getting out of their chairs, standing up, turning around, etc.

Of course, James has straps in his high chair, but Simon and Nora also have straps on their chairs

Simon uses the Stokke TripTrap chair (very pricy but we got it on Craigslist) which has full over-the-shoulder straps that keep him sitting down, but not totally constrained like in a car seat.

Nora uses the Keekaroo chair (Also quite expensive, but we found it on Craigslist) which has a waist strap that at least keeps her seated for most of the meal!

In general, I am a HUGE advocate for chairs that fit the child — I cannot tell you how much better our children sit and eat when they have someplace to put their feet, when they are at a good sitting height, and when they are strapped in. (Here’s an interesting post that shares more about how important it is to have a child seated properly at the table).

I realize we never would have purchased either the Keekaroo or the Stokke chairs if I hadn’t found a great deal on Craigslist, but I’m SO glad we have them now.

We have tried moving Nora to a regular chair 2 or 3 times (in preparation for James moving into her chair) but we put her back in her chair after a few days of craziness. She wiggled around constantly, kicked her legs the entire meal, and literally fell off her chair 2 times!

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2. We put a tablecloth under the high chair.

I assume we are not the only parents who have VERY messy babies and toddlers… right?

So far, it seems that James is actually our messiest eater — probably because we give him less attention and help than we did when Nora and Simon were his age, but also because he insists on feeding himself 100% of the time.

Back when Simon was still using the highchair, Dave and I got smart and put a tablecloth under his chair so all the crumbs and junk simply fell onto the cloth. We would shake it out at the end of every day and wash it periodically.

It was a lifesaver in terms of how much crud it kept off our kitchen floor — and we’ve been using the same tablecloth ever since.

I save so much time sweeping the floor, picking up food, and wiping up spills!

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3. We use spill-proof cups.

I know children need to learn to drink out of normal cups eventually — but I hate cleaning spilled liquids (especially when my food is already lukewarm) so our kids use spill-proof cups as often as they are willing.

Nora has been drinking out of regular cups for a while already, but she still uses a straw water bottle whenever she’s drinking in the living room or in the car.

Simon is perfectly content to use the silicone lid + straws (and his speech therapist told us to have him use a straw as often as possible) and James is still rocking the sippy cups.

This means less chance of spills and less messes for us to clean up.

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4. I put food on their plates before I bring the plates to the table.

For some reason, I always feel like the entire meal is more stressful and chaotic if the table is full of food… so when Dave and I got married, we started leaving the food on the counter (or the stove) and only taking our plates to the table.

Throughout the years, and as we’ve added children to our home, this method continues to work well for us — and it seems to really simplify our meals (I do it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — ALL the time!)

We might have applesauce or bread or fruit on the table, but everything else stays on the counter. If we want more, we just get up and put more on our plates.

Once the food is ready, I call Dave and the kids into the kitchen. He gets them all strapped in and puts bibs on appropriate children. Meanwhile, I put small portions of food on their plates and have it already cut up and ready to go to the table (this also helps it cool a bit before they eat it).

Once we pray, they can dig in immediately and Dave and I can then eat in relative peace while our food is still somewhat warm without being constantly nagged by the kids to cut up their food, give them some ketchup, blow on their food, etc.

I realize this might not work for families with more children (or older children)… and I know we won’t need to do this as much when our children get older — but for young children, it works SO well!

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5. I always serve at least one thing I know they love.

My kids are fairly good eaters (at least in my opinion) but even still, they definitely all have their favorite foods.

They will always try at least one bite of everything (we usually request that Nora try at least 2 bites) but we don’t force them to eat something if they truly don’t like it.

That said, I’m rarely willing to make completely different meals for the kids (with the exception of fish — I usually make them chicken). It’s too much work to make multiple different meals every night, but I WILL always serve at least one thing I know they love.

Maybe it’s cheese cubes, mandarin oranges, strawberries, fresh bread and butter, applesauce, pickles, french fries, or finger Jello. I don’t really care if it “goes” with the rest of our meal, it’s more important for me that they are really excited about at least one of the foods on their plate.

Usually if I can just get them eating that one thing, they gradually start eating the other things — and then I’m willing to give them more of their favorite food as an incentive to keep eating other foods.

It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to work well for our kids.

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In general, our meal times are still pretty loud and crazy, but these 5 tips help us to simplify our time at the table — something I really appreciate at this point in my life!

Do you have any tips to simplify mealtime with young children?

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17 comments

  1. Laura

    08/24/2017

    Don’t worry, it doesn’t sound crazy at all. I’m glad to read I’m not the only one keeping older kids strapped into children size chairs to get a nice and peacefull meal avoiding mealtime mess. It really makes the difference.

    We have been using the Tiamo Evolutive Chair (http://www.tiamo.nl/Hoofdcategorie-EN/Tiamo-EN/Wood-Collection/High-chair-natural/) which is more or less similar to the ones you use, her price is about 70 euros.

    My 4 kids have one and have always been fully strapped in with the 5 points harnesses. My oldest is 11 yr old, she outgrew the shoulder straps by 8 yr old but still uses the hip/leg straps.

    I’m not sure from the photos, is your oldest still strapped in at all time as well ? How old is she now ?

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Nora is 5.5 and we sometimes strap her in. It just depends on the meal and how the day is going 🙂

    [Reply]

  2. Ann

    02/20/2017

    LOL!
    I decided to protect the rug under our table by using your idea of tablecloths under the Little’s chairs. My 25 year old came home and said, “What’s up with the floor bibs?” Pretty apt description if you ask me!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    I’ve actually seen “floor bibs” online — and that’s where I first got the idea. They were cute and colorful — but basically just a tablecloth under the highchair!

    [Reply]

  3. Jane

    02/19/2017

    #5 always works for us. My boys are 9 & 11 and I think the table cloth under their chairs would still be helpful 🙂

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    haha — well, I’m sure it would save you some sweeping to put tablecloths under their chairs 🙂

    [Reply]

  4. Tracey

    02/19/2017

    Those silicone straw kids are genius!

    My kids are teenagers now, but I take care of a two year old who loves to drink from a straw.

    [Reply]

  5. Annaleah

    02/17/2017

    I have six kids, eight and under, and I have to admit that I do several things the opposite to you, because I find that way simpler for me. Such as: I put all the food on the table and serve from there. Getting up multiple times during a meal would not be relaxing to me! Also, now that some of my kids are getting older, I’m training them to serve themselves and I wouldn’t want them getting up multiple times either! I also am not a fan of sippy cups, with all the multiple pieces and spouts that get gross; I much prefer to just teach my kids to use cups at an early age! But I love that we all get to do what works best for us! 🙂
    One if the best ways I found to simplify food was to eliminate our morning snack. It was getting exhausting to prepare and serve food five times a day, plus cleanup, so now I do breakfast just a bit later, and lunch a bit earlier, and everyone does just fine! As a bonus, I’ve found that my kids eat better at breakfast and lunch, which are healthier than our snacks usually were, anyway.
    I also love to use mealtimes as read aloud times. I always read a chapter book at lunch, and even the little guys can participate, since they are sitting (mostly) still and quiet. And we usually read a Bible story towards the end of dinner. Giving the kids something to focus on definitely helps mealtime be calmer for us. (Then I eat my lunch once they’ve gone to rest time!)

    [Reply]

    Tara Reply:

    Annaleah I feel the same way about sippy cup parts and getting up during meals. I also cut out our morning snack and adjusted mealtimes too. Gives me a break.

    My tip is that I’ve found my kids will happily eat twice as many veggies or salad if i set them on the table while I finish up preparing a meal. They are really hungry and have no complaints about eating their veggies as an appetizer. Then I don’t care if all they have is macaroni or a piece of pizza when we all sit down for the meal.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    It sounds like you homeschool your kids… yes?
    With Nora starting school, we don’t have the option to push breakfast back because she needs to eat before school… otherwise I would totally have a later breakfast and earlier lunch in lieu of the morning snack.

    [Reply]

  6. Bonnie'sMama

    02/17/2017

    From my sister-in-law who has 8 kids, I learned to use a kitchen shears to cut children’s food. Stand it up on their plate, put your hand in the opposite way you normally use a scissors, and squeeze to cut the food. This way you don’t have to pick up whatever you’re cutting. It works beautifully and quickly for so many foods–chunks in soup, pancakes, noodles, meat, etc. She keeps a kitchen shears in her diaper bag for when they’re eating away from home!

    And YES to sippie cups. There is just not time and patience for wiping up all the spills! They all learn to drink normally eventually, with much less frustration from me.

    I had a 2-year-old through foster care who did not know how to chew. He also was used to eating only junk food. I taught him to chew and to eat vegetables by putting only veggies on his plate at the beginning of every meal. He was hungry enough he grudgingly ate them, and they couldn’t be swallowed whole so he had to chew. Eventually he learned to just eat the vegetables and get it over with so he could eat the stuff he really liked.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    oh yes! We LOOOOOOVE our “kitchen scissors” We have 3 of them and use them daily. They are almost all in the dishwasher every time we run it (which is usually daily!)

    [Reply]

  7. Miranda

    02/17/2017

    I love the photo with the tablecloth under the highchair and the smock hanging on the chair ready to go. I love it because it’s real life and functional instead of some unattainable picture of a magazine worthy formal dining area. I hate to check out a blog post and end up feeling inadequate. Thank you so much for being practical and real. Please keep doing what you’re doing!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    yeah, we almost always have the tablecloth under the highchair and some wort of bib or smock draped over the back. 🙂

    [Reply]

    Tracey Reply:

    I thought the same thing! So real-life, so practical.

    [Reply]

  8. Ashley

    02/17/2017

    #2. This is why we have a dog!

    Great post. I’ve done almost all of this without thinking about how much easier it makes things!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    haha! I think I’d rather sweep 3 times a day than have a dog 🙂

    [Reply]