Today we’re going to talk about ideas that will move meal times from battles to enjoyable dining. First, I’m going to talk about how to get kids to sit and eat – a huge problem for many families. Then we’ll talk about getting your kids to eat different types of food – the next most challenging food topic for parents of little ones. This podcast will concentrate on parents with kids from toddler to elementary school age. I have a special “teen edition” of food issues that I’m putting up as my next podcast so stay tuned for that if you’ve got older kids.
With that said, let’s dive in and let’s learn some more practical parenting wisdom relating to food.
First, how to get kids to sit and eat. For some of you, the dinner table is a jumping box – kids getting up and down at will having no particular interest in eating, they’d rather be playing. You might start your meal together but within minutes your kids are out of their seats. You’re either yelling at them to come back to the table or running after them with food. For others of you, to get peace at your dinner table you set your kids up on some sort of electronic device. Your table is quiet and kids stay seated but your kids eat so slowly you wind up feeding them by hand. If you try to remove the electronics, your kids have meltdowns. Oh my… no fun at all!
I love to pose the question as to why we parents do this to ourselves? Is it nutrition? Are we worried about weight issues? Or is it a balanced diet? You know your kids likes carbs but they just aren’t interested in those vegetables, right? Or maybe it’s different? Love veggies but not protein. We want them to be healthy and we feel food is so important that we will put up with just about any behavior for them to be fed nutritious meals, right? It’s exhausting!
Family Mealtime Rules
So, we need to make a plan. To change this dynamic we have to set what I call Family Mealtime Rules. We need to put boundaries and expectations in place so that our whole family knows what to expect. Here’s the list of four essential rules to getting your family mealtimes into line:
- We eat at the table
- We don’t have electronics, toys, or books while we eat
- If a kid can lift a fork on their own, they need to feed themselves
- When someone gets up from the table, they are done eating
Pretty ambitious, right? Putting loving boundaries around acceptable behaviors at the table is essential. You might have heard that kids need limits and when they don’t have them, they think the sky is the limit. If your mealtimes are out of control it might be because the limits haven’t been set by you and possibly, they’ve been set instead by your kids which is a recipe for disaster.
How long should dinner time or breakfast take in your home – 20 minutes? 30? 10? I want you to pick a time and shoot for it. In our example here I’m going to say about 20 minutes since it’s pretty normal.
Now let’s go through each one of those four rules and see how you can implement them in a loving and consistent manner.
- Eat at the table
- Pretty simple, just like it says, not on the couch in front of a TV
- No electronics or books or private toys
- You need to realize this is just for 20 minutes and that you and your kids can make it together for that time without private distractions. Yes, that means no electronics for mom or dad either. Some parents have kids who want to bring cars or trucks or dolls to the table, no thank you for those either!
- If you’d like a distraction then offer a family game to play like Yahtzee, Candy Lane, any group game you can all play together. “Together” is the operative word here. In my family I set up something called a “Conversation Jar” – it was a bin that had slips of paper kids could draw from with questions them; things like “What was one thing you learned today?” or “What’s your favorite movie?” or “Tell us a joke.” There are even decks of cards you can buy with conversation type questions on them if you don’t want to make up your own.
- The main point here is that personal distractions aren’t allowed but group distractions are. My goal would be not to need the group distractions for a 20 minute meal but, if you need them, use them!
- Kids feeding themselves
- This is a hard one for lots of parents especially of small kids since we worry they aren’t getting enough nutrition or we see them struggle to eat with a fork or spoon which can be messy and slow. Once your child hits about two there shouldn’t be anyone approaching them with a forkful of food except themselves. If you’re that parent who is running after a kid with a fork, you have to stop.
- Getting up from the table means they’re done
- This is the most important rule!
- Here’s what you need to do. First, make sure your kids know this new rule in a loving manner, no lectures needed, just a simple statement: “We serve dinner to children who stay at the table.” That’s it. Then wait.
- As soon as your child gets up you LOVINGLY take away their plate saying something like: “Oh, I guess you are all done. No problem. Have fun playing.” Keep in mind that they might actually be done eating, they might have had enough and won’t be back.
- However, if they do run back to the table and want their food back you say: “Oh, this is soooo sad. You know our new rule is that if you get up it means you’re done. So sorry. I know you’ll have a really nice breakfast to look forward to in the morning.” If there’s begging and crying you just have to put up with it, don’t give in. This is part of the lesson they are learning, it’s a natural consequence and it will be very effective, you just have to trust me.
- Now, some others of you have kids that will just run off playing. There’s no need to remind, lecture or to yell after them: “Hey, I’m taking your dinner away! You’re gonna be hungry!” You need to let them decide what and how much to eat, not keep them at the dinner table forcing them to eat everything on their plate. If your pediatrician isn’t worried about their weight, you shouldn’t be either. I’d like you to consider that as your kids get older, they actually put the food on their plates that they want to eat. You need to let them own their food intake.
- Many kids will come back to you in an hour saying they’re hungry. I’d encourage you to be calm and empathetic and say something like: “This is sooo sad. I get hungry when I don’t eat enough for dinner too. Breakfast sure will be yummy.” But I know that’s really hard for parents of young ones so I’d offer a compromise to you, have something in your house that your kids kinda like, is really healthy and they can get for themselves. I love to use carrots as an example. When they say they are hungry you can say: “This is soooo sad. Dinner is all done. You’re welcome to have carrots. ” Whatever you choose for your family don’t make it very attractive, just tolerable.
- One final complication to a 20-minute mealtime is that you might be offering too many snacks to your kids too close to mealtime. Try to set snack times that end at least 90 minutes ahead of a meal so that your kids are hungry when mealtime comes.
All these new rules will allow you to have a completely different food experience in your house. It should be not only healthier but also happier.
Ok, now what we’re done with setting up rules at our mealtimes we’re going to move on to topic number two – food choices. The classic “My child is so picky.” Or, “My child won’t eat vegetables.” is such a challenge. What ideas do I have for you in dealing with these? I have four ideas:
- Food is a source of power for kids, you need to take away their power over you. The more we push certain foods on them, the more they rebel which causes us to compromise and run after them with a fork or let them use electronics at dinner. You need to let them know you trust them to take care of their food needs.
- Second, don’t be anxious about food which is highly related to #1. Kids will settle down and grow over time. Your children need to know you love them and they are secure. Let their bodies drive what they eat and your job is to keep healthy food in their lives as much as possible. If your pediatrician thinks they are doing ok then don’t worry.
- Third, offer at least something on your kid’s plate that you know they’ll eat. In my house one son like broccoli and the other green beans so we ate a lot of those. I would have liked more variety but at least they were vegetables. My sons eventually moved on to Caesar Salad so we ate a lot of that. Today as adults they eat lots of things, I just had to wait and know that their palates will most likely grow. That said, we all know adults who are still picky eaters and, hey, they’re living and breathing and it’s all just fine.
- Lastly, I think it’s super fun to take our kids grocery shopping with the intention of going on a food treasure hunt. Have them pick out a few things that look interesting to THEM and incorporate them into your meals. The deal will be that each person needs to take at least one bite of the new foods and they are even welcome to spit it out if they don’t like it. The idea is to have them try, not to force them, to eat new things so please make it a fun experience and not a torturous one.
Another issue a family had with all of these suggestions required a bit more brainstorming. They lived in a small house and had a 4-year-old who wouldn’t eat his dinner but would wake up in the middle of the night hungry, not at a convenient time like before bedtime. Ugh. That was a major drag especially since they had a new baby and a 6-year-old. If there was a middle-of-the-night problem where the 4-year-old was hungry they couldn’t let him have a tantrum and wake everyone up. In this case, we decided feeding the child food was fine, however, the next day when things were calm the parents needed to make sure there was a loving consequence for waking up a parent due to them not finishing their dinner and being hungry in the middle-of-the-night. The consequence might be something like cleaning up toys or vacuuming the living room. The point being that the parent lost sleep and didn’t have the extra energy to do those jobs so the child needs to do it for the parent. In the Parenting the Love and Logic Way® class that I facilitate this is called an Energy Drain, see link below.
I hope you’ve got some new ideas to try to help get mealtimes under control in your house. You have the four Family Mealtime Rules to implement in addition to the ideas about how to give good food choices. I want you to try and to not give up. Setting reasonable boundaries around food is super, super important.
Link to Love and Logic® technique on ENERGY DRAIN: HERE