Young children love to emulate Mom and Dad, and it's a thrill for them to be "in" on the grown-up world when appropriate. Mealtime is one of those arenas. By the time a child is 3 or 4 years old, he should be able to learn to be well behaved at the dinner table when the occasion calls for it, says child development expert Penelope Leach, Ph.D., in her book, Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five (Knopf; revised edition 2010).
"If your child is enthusiastic about eating it is because nobody has spoiled for him the natural relationship between feeling hungry and enjoying food," says Leach. "If that's the case, he will be ready, now, to start to fit in with the social aspects of mealtimes," she adds.
Leach cautions parents to go easy and offers the following suggestions for raising sociable eaters:
Teach table manners by example rather than urging.
Children learn to behave as the rest of the family does, so if you are irritated by him eating with his fingers or putting his elbows on the table, make sure he's not watching someone else in the family doing the same thing.
Provide your child the same eating arrangements as your own.
Your preschooler will imitate you more readily if he's sitting in a regular chair — or a smaller, but extra tall version designed for young children — rather than in a high chair. Leach says it's important to provide him with a place setting like everyone else at the table, too. "He cannot learn to take care of china and glass and to manage a fork, spoon and eventually a table knife if he is only given plastic," she adds.
Help your child acquire new tastes.
If your little one knows he will be made to eat anything that is put on his plate, he probably won't want to try new foods. Leach says kids have a tendency to feel more adventurous if you allow them to sample something new before the meal. Simply offer him a tiny bit on a teaspoon and let him decide if he wants it or not. Keep in mind some kids are finicky, and it sometimes takes a few attempts for a child to adapt to a new taste.
Get your child used to foods which will make life easier for you.
"A child who is generally enthusiastic about food will usually accept new foods if he sees you eating them with pleasure," says Leach, adding that it will also make him feel like more of a member of the family and less the baby of it. Acclimate your child with the kind of foods that will be available on family camping trips, picnics or in your favorite family-friendly restaurants. Leach also suggests getting kids used to eating cheese. "Bread or crackers with cheese and a tomato or an apple is a perfectly balanced meal which takes 30 seconds to prepare and another 30 seconds to clear up. It's easily portable and available almost anywhere," says Leach.