I have started to write this article on balancing feeding kids at different ages (and feeding stages) many times over the past few years and now that it’s 2021, I’m rewriting it! Why is this article hard to write? Well, different stages and changes to mealtimes are not only exclusively for when you introduce a solid-starting sibling to the table. There are other times when we need to think about balancing different needs at meals:

  1. Fussy older sibling + newborn (aka the rest of this article)
  2. When you initially start doing family style serve or are struggling making progress with it a few months in (read more here)
  3. When your children have difficult “witching hours” and this makes dinner preparations difficult (read more here)
  4. When your toddler has seemingly ZERO attention span (read more here)
  5. When you have allergies to consider at mealtimes (my book dives into this – available in here! )
  6. When there are additional medical considerations for your family to balance.
  7. When daily routines have been changed – including moving house, parents changing work roles, child starting school / day care and other life transitions.
  8. When a child has been repeatedly ill (ps. if tonsils / adenoids have been an ongoing concern for your child, have a read of this article)

Balancing the needs of older siblings and family schedules can be especially difficult  as we know that every day can be a bit different with a newborn.  So, to make this more concise, I’m writing 11 tips for balancing feeding newborns and fussy older children. 

Yet, before I get to the tips, I have also written about the funny side of trying to bake with a toddler and an infant at the same time and I have written about how introducing solids to my baby left my toddler feeling a bit left out and demanding more attention at mealtimes. And you may be wondering … 

What the Feeding Theory Says about Balancing Mealtime Roles

Ellyn Satter’s model known as the division of responsibility (DOR) is a great spot to start.  

The bread and butter of the model is that parents (of children older than 2) are to assume 3 mealtime responsibilities – WHAT is served, WHEN it is served and WHERE it is served. Children are then responsible for WHETHER they eat and HOW MUCH they eat.  

However, before the age of 2 these roles are different. When you have a newborn your role is to provide the food (milk) and they are in charge of WHEN. And this transition slides over the 2 years until you get to the point of everyone participating in the above mentioned roles.  It is important to include babies in seeing the mealtimes before they are ready for solids too, they will begin to see how mealtimes work. 

DOR can seem easier than it is to implement. That is expected. It’s not a linear progression to make a change like this. Jo, my colleague at Your Feeding Team, eloquently talks about just how hard DOR is to implement.  For example, a child could feel insecure or unsure of the meal routine and hence starts to demand what, when and where they will be fed.  Or a child doesn’t have set meal routines due to unlimited grazing opportunities all day long – heads up – 9 hour long degustation menus don’t result in a big appetite for dinner at the end of a busy day for toddlers – constant snacking is your dinner’s worst enemy.

Subsequently, parents start getting anxious about how much and whether their child is eating.  And ultimately, a mealtime battle occurs because each team is fighting for the wrong mealtime responsibility.

As with all problematic mealtime behaviours, the first thing to do is ask yourself – “What is this all about?” … To change a behaviour, you need to understand it first.  – Jo Cormack

And when I’ve talked with Dr Kristy Goodwin about meals and screen influences (in my eCourse), we’ve discussed how important setting and protecting your parenting roles is for us and for our children. Dr Kristy talks about it from a children’s technology use point of view.  Techno tantrums and mealtime battles occur when the roles have been blurred or we have dropped the protection of our boundaries. However, don’t get us wrong, even with the best executed roles a tantrum can still happen. Being mindful of why this tantrum occurred helps you out for next time.  For example, in this post I explained when my daughter is tired we still can see mealtime tantrums and I explain what I do about it using the emotion program.  We need to constantly ask ourselves WHY is the behaviour happening.

My 11 Tips for managing a newborn and toddler at one mealtime

  1. Give your child lots of exposures to foods away from mealtimes to boost their familiarity with foods in a neutral environment (ie. NO PRESSURE TO EAT).  It meant less “surprise” at dinner time for her.
  2. Use baby’s naptime to prepare vegies or cook with your older child one-on-one. This tip also helped me up skill my child enough so that she was genuinely helpful or at least competent to happily do tasks like sorting the carrot peels in size order while I could get on with meal preparation. I call this “Unhelpful Help” – and it is a game changer.
  3. Stick to family style serving.  I love this post by Jo Cormack explaining the social benefits of family style meals. If you look at my Instagram feed (though not glamorous) you will see every meal (breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner) is family style in my house.  The result is that my youngest has always served herself and learnt almost by osmosis the expectations of eating with the family.
  4. When schedules clash, feed baby at the meal table. In these instances, I chose foods my toddler and I could eat together and were safe to eat with my newborn at my lap (eg. avocado & tuna on toast or bananas with tubs of yoghurt).  To save my back from aching, I used a feeding pillow.
  5. Use a range of neutral responses to their food talk and use non-directive language to avoid applying pressure to eat. Pressure makes children less interested in taking on a task – looking at your child eat can make them feel anxious!
  6. Seating position really matters!  I started out by keeping my toddler in her usual spot at the end of the table (because we had bench seats along the lengths of our dining table).  I quickly realized we were falling into a trap where my oldest was demanding my attention as I kept turning my back to her when I tended to her baby sister.  A quick* trip to Ikea to buy some normal dining chairs to match our feeding chairs meant that we could shuffle the chairs around our table.  We re-purposed our bench seats. I moved to the head of the table and the girls sat either side of me so that they were both within arms reach and no back turning was happening anymore.
    * I don’t actually think there is a “quick” trip to Ikea when you have kids, but I thought I’d write “quick” to make you think that was an easy solution!
  7. Really look at the cutlery and bowls your older child is using.  Check if the cutlery the right shape for your child’s hand and skill set. Is the bowl allowing them to eat their food properly? Or are they chasing that piece of slippery pasta around a large flat plate and getting frustrated? Is there some blank space on the plate that helps them succeed and feel less overwhelmed?
  8. Offer a range of family foods to encourage different learning experiences without expectation to eat everything on offer. We want variety to be normal for kids.
  9. Try to avoid getting up and down from the table. Kids learn from what we model. Model sitting at the table and eating.  
  10. Allow the older child to have control over the things that aren’t your responsibility.  Serving themselves from the middle of the table is a great one.  I’ve also seen some success with kids using their own sandwich cutters to make their sandwiches their “own”.
  11. Make a point to enjoy moments in your meal without distraction of a TV or phone.

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Do you have some other tips on HOW to manage the balance of newborn and toddler/preschooler feeding requirements?   What role does your child like to assume at the meal?  Do they like to control something that helps them at mealtimes?

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