5 Ways to Encourage Toddler Conversation at Mealtime

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).

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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).

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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!

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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? 

18 Comments

  1. I will need to try the playing outside before sitting down at a restaurant tip! Our 20 month old seriously has a 10 minute timer and after that he wants to leave the table and explore.

    I’m always talking to him, constantly pointing things out. If he watches tv I make an effort to watch with him and point things out during the show – We read alot of books together and I’ll ask him to tell me what I’m pointing to. He will also tell our dog “no, no bubby” and give him a pat on the bum to move the dog along, lol. I think the relationship between him and our dog is one of my favorite things (the dog may thing otherwise)

  2. I love the fun, playtime ideas here but not the fact you are promoting the healthiness of General Mills cereals (aka Candy) as healthy. Aren’t you going to be dispensing nutrition advice?!

    “These kid-oriented cereals are still extremely processed, have virtually no nutritional value and are fortified with vitamins because the real nutrients have been stripped in processing,” Simon added. “If they really wanted to be healthier, they should stop bombarding children with messages to eat candy in a box.”

    From this article (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/22/the-real-reason-general-mills-is-cutting-fake-flavors-from-trix-lucky-charms-and-other-cereals/) in the Washington Post

    1. Kate – stop judging what she should or should not be doing. Maybe start your own blog with your own research. She’s not saying to feed your kids or yourself a box every meal but it adds some fun from time to time. Jeez, take it out of context. Fr@Kate:

  3. It’s crazy how different kids are! My daughter turned 2 in march and we have always had an issue with her wanting to sit at the table for over an hour while she eats. We can’t allow her to play at the table or she would be there forever! Also she loves talking at the table and gets very upset if my husband and I talk to each other instead of her. We have the opposite problens!

  4. Thanks for the tip about the timer. We use one for tooth brushing, but I never thought of doing that for other things – ex, sitting at the table. Glad Q man is progressing on his language! That’s awesome.

  5. My daughter is a little delayed in language also, but she’s younger than Quinn (she’ll be 2 in October) and so far has been making progress on her own which is very exciting. This post made me think about dinnertime and how my husband and I are chatting about the day but need to talk with her more. It’s not that we don’t talk with her at all, but we’re just barely seeing each other for the first time that day. And we’ve found that she often eats better if she’s left alone rather than if we sit and stare at her and try to get her to eat. And since she’s very tiny, her eating is a priority.

  6. Great post! I will be referring back to this very soon…our son is 15 months and hasn’t really said too much yet and we let him eat his meals in front of the tv as a distraction but I would love if he sat at the table. He hated his high chair. He definitely understands words and I can see him get excited about things he likes, like going outside and bath time. He does sign a few things to us “milk” “more” “please”.

  7. I try so hard to encourage conversation with my step kids in my house. They’re 8 and 5 so we play a game where I write questions on note cards and we all take turns answering. Some are silly like “What animal would you be?” or “What superpower would you have?” and some are a little more serious like “What makes you happy when you’re sad?” or “Choose one person at the table and tell them one thing you like about them.” We’ll even play it when we’re out to eat. It gives us such great laughs at dinner time and helps our rambunctious 5 year old sit still for a while!

  8. Great post. So glad you have a great plan going for Quinn. He is adorable. My sister has a Master’ s degree in Education and she is the director of a daycare and she was recently telling me about the connection between movement and language acquisition (and also reading). It seems especially important for naturally active kids, of which my 9-month old baby boy is one! I will keep these tips in mind. He has trouble sitting still.

  9. Great post, I love the rough and tumble idea. Do you have any tips getting them to stop throwing food on the floor? Our mealtime battles right now are feeding the dog and throwing food on the floor. The dog now has to stay in another room during mealtimes and I’ve taken his plate away the moment he intentionally does it but nothing is working yet.

    1. We taught Quinn how to say “all done” in sign language, which helped a lot. As soon as he started throwing food, he was all done and meal time was over.

  10. Great post and anytime I hear, read or see another parent experiencing the challenges I do with my 19 month old, it makes me feel normal 🙂 Great ideas and looking forward to focusing on our family dinners together to start! Thank you!

  11. I must say, I have to agree with the post from Kate above. I’m disappointed to see you promoting cereals like Cocoa Puffs and Trix as ‘healthy’ options for toddlers. Just because General Mills has eliminated artificial coloring from their cereals doesn’t mean they’re still not LOADED with sugar and artificial ingredients. Yuck.

  12. Great post and I’m glad things are improving! My 2 year old daughter spends so long eating I get bored! 2 year old conversations are so repetitive 🙂 I’ve started bringing a cookbook to the table to flip through while she eats so I’m not as tempted to get up or look at my phone (my husband doesn’t get home in time to eat with her).

  13. Many times, I read books to William while he eats. This keeps him occupied and distracts him enough to eat… sounds weird, but sometimes I have a hard time getting him to START eating.. once he gets started he’s fine, so if I start reading him a book, I can usually sneak in a bite or two to his mouth and he gets started and eats pretty well. Just another idea! 🙂 🙂

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