5 Ways to Encourage Toddler Conversation at Mealtime

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Hi, I'm Tina!

I’m the owner of Carrots ‘N’ Cake as well as a Certified Nutrition Coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner (FDN-P). I use macros and functional nutrition to help women find balance within their diets while achieving their body composition goals.

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This post is brought to you by General Mills Cereals.

In recent months, our family has worked with a Speech-Language Pathologist to help bring Quinn’s language up-to-speed. After having chronic ear infections for the first 20 months of his life, he had a Tonsillectomy and Adenoidectomy at Boston Children’s Hospital, which definitely made a difference in his overall health (i.e. he’s had zero ear infections since and he’s a MUCH happier kid now), but his language still lags a bit. Thankfully, here in Massachusetts, Early Intervention is a free service and, after chatting with a number of friends who benefited from the program, we decided that we had nothing to lose by contacting them. Long story short, our weekly visits with Quinn’s Speech-Language Pathologist have made a huge difference in his language acquisition and new words come everyday. Just last week, he starting saying all of his colors!

During our appointments, we frequently chat about mealtime since it’s a constant struggle in our house. Q-man does not like to sit still and we quickly learned his constant need for activity is likely related to his speech delays (more on this below). Our struggles with mealtime seem to go hand-in-hand, so we started to use them to our advantage as a way to help Quinn develop language (and eat wider variety of nutritious foods). That said, here are some ways we encourage conversation with our little guy at mealtime!

Roughhouse before mealtime – “Wrestling” on the couch before dinner is one of our favorite activities! Haha! “Rough and tumble” play can stimulate language, so we make it a priority before we sit down to breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Pro tip: Before dining out at a restaurant, let your toddler play/run around before heading inside. It definitely helps keep them at the table (at least for a little while).


Make mealtime FUN – In our house, play is totally okay at the dinner table. We use colorful dishware and place mats to help teach Quinn his colors. We also allow him to bring a couple of toys to the table. They help keep his interest, so he sits longer at the table while encouraging new words. For instance, in the photo below, we practiced “above” and “below” and “in” and “out” using a car and garage. Pro tip: Quinn’s Speech-Language Pathologist often utilizes toys from the Dollar Spot at Target. Sometimes the simplest (and cheapest) toys are the best for learning (i.e. plastic eggs, light-up bracelets, wind-up cars).


We also let Quinn “play” with his food, which is another fun way to teach him new words. The Cheerios Play Book, pictured below, is a tasty and interactive way to learn and eat breakfast at the same time!


As you can see, we love playing with and eating cereal in our house, and we love that more than 90 percent of General Mills cereals do not have artificial flavors or colors from artificial sources. Cinnamon toast crunch uses real cinnamon, Cocoa Puffs & Reese’s Puffs use real cocoa, and Honey Nut Cheerios uses real honey for flavor. For color, Trix and Fruity Cheerios use extract from blueberries, purple carrots, and turmeric. Pretty awesome, right? General Mills definitely listens to their customers!

Use simple phrases – Along the same lines as using simple toys, we also try to use simple phrases with Quinn to encourage his own language. For instance, we’ll say things like “hi, fork” and “bye, cup” to help him understand and try these words on his own. One of Quinn’s favorite simple phrases: “No, no, Murph,” which is the cutest thing ever (and way better than screaming at the pug).

Make mealtimes a habit – Ever since Quinn’s Speech-Language Pathologist told us that only one parent is needed to make a habit stick, we’ve tried our hardest to make dinnertime together a nightly occurrence (at least in some capacity – more on this below). (We also feed Quinn at the table or kitchen island now – no more meals in front of the TV – to help establish the habit.) Having the daily ritual to sit down and spend time together as a family is such a great way to practice new language with Quinn. Pro tip: Using a visual timer on one of our phones (we like this free app) helps to keep Quinn focused at the table. We’re just starting to get the hang of the timer and it doesn’t always work, but sometimes we get lucky and he’ll sit and eat his dinner!

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Do what works best for your family – Encouraging language with your little one is all about what works best for your family. An example from our house: Mal typically doesn’t get home from CrossFit until after 6:00 PM, but Quinn is usually hungry before then, so the two of us have dinner #1 together and then play/roughhouse until Dada gets home. Once Mal is settled, we’ll all sit down together as a family for dinner #2. Sometimes, Quinn sits and eats with us, other times he doesn’t, but it works as a way for our family to eat together and chat with Quinn.

Question of the Day

Parents: How do you encourage conversation with your child/children? 

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