I think we can all agree that when you have young kids, mealtimes are far from the relaxing, enjoyable, bonding time that you’d always envisioned they would be.
You slave away over a hot stove (or microwave) all night and how do your darling children thank you?
They say it looks yucky.
They beg you to get down from their high chair to go play instead.
They throw their utensils on the floor.
They take handfuls of peas and throw them into the air like confetti.
And my favorite…
They take one lick of their chicken and proclaim they’re done!
You want nothing more than to just be able to eat an entire meal while it’s hot and have a decent conversation with your husband about your day, but instead, you’re fighting battles.
Lather, rinse, repeat every single night.
Actual photo of my son picking up every last pea after throwing them into the air like confetti. Not today, kid.
Questions about mealtime issues are some of the most common ones I receive. Below, I will be sharing THREE reader questions along with my answers so we can cover a wider range of problems/solutions associated with family mealtimes.
Advice around mealtime. How do I create positive eating habits without bribing her? She will eat a variety of things but has started saying she is all done and asking for other things. Any general words of wisdom? I hate to make her eat when she is full just for a treat, but also actually need her to eat. We stick to set meal and snack times fyi.
Mealtime can be super stressful! Try serving her treat (very small portion) WITH the dinner so it’s not viewed as a reward/bribe. Then she’ll have her entire meal in front of her and she can choose how much she wants to eat. No additional requests for food. What you serve is the only option (we always include at least one thing that we know he likes though). When she says “all done” then that’s it.
I agree with not making her eat if she’s full so you don’t send the wrong message.
Even though it can be hard, try and have a super lax attitude about mealtime. So don’t get overly excited when she eats vegetables or upset when she doesn’t (just examples) etc. Just act as if you’re cool with whatever. Some days she’ll eat a lot and other days she won’t and that’s perfectly normal!
My 18-month-old will eat a bit in his chair, say he is all done, then two mins later run around saying eat! I’ve tried keeping him in his chair longer but he just doesn’t want to take more than a few bites. 10 min later and he is starving to death. Dinner has turned into a stressful dance of him snacking off of our plates as he runs around playing. I don’t know how to correct his behavior. He has a high metabolism so if I cut him off from food once he is out of his chair, I worry he will be hungry at night.
Meal times always seem to be tricky with toddlers.
I would say he has to stay in his chair for at least 20 minutes. You could try a visual timer to help him understand this time frame. If he doesn’t eat during this time frame, then the meal is over and he can get out and play. Refrain from letting him snack off of your plate though! He probably knows he’ll get your food later so he doesn’t feel the need to stay in his chair for any reason.
Set a specific time for a nightly snack. Say maybe 30 mins after dinner. He can eat his leftovers that he didn’t eat for dinner or a piece of fruit (or whatever you feel is acceptable) at that time.
The snack serves as a backup so he does “go to bed hungry.” To be honest, though, I wouldn’t worry about that too much. Toddlers go in such crazy phases of eating a ton and then eating next to nothing!
What discipline would you suggest for a crazy smart, sassy, 2.5 yr old who for the life of her will not stop chucking silverware or food when she doesn’t want it or thinks she is done… anywhere from plate shoving, to silverware or food throwing. She is otherwise well behaved, speaks in full sentences, and understands most concepts. She doesn’t seem to mind timeout, a swat on the hand or bottom swats… she understands taking away certain privileged and knows when she is being naughty. It is a continual thing every single day. How do I stop it?
If she throws anything, give her 1 warning and then end her mealtime if she does it again (and make her clean it up). If she’s doing it because she’s done, then pay super close attention and block the throw then model what you want her to say. It sounds like she’s continuing to do it because she sees it pushes your buttons. She’s a smart cookie!
Stay calm, block her throw, and model the appropriate way to let you know she’s done.
If she’s throwing the silverware during her meal when she’s not even finished, then take the silverware away. Tell her that if she cannot use them appropriately, then she doesn’t get them.
I truly think that it’s more of a control thing. She knows that it pushes your buttons so she keeps doing it. So it won’t end until you take the power out of it by remaining calm and not reacting.
If you’re worried about her going to bed hungry, try implementing a nighttime snack. So let’s say every night (regardless of whether or not she ate her dinner), she gets an apple and peanut butter. That way the nights her dinnertime is ended early, she still has that fallback. And the key is to NOT let her do it a million times and get you to that frustration point. Follow through after the first time she throws.
Let’s Talk About It
The advice given to these 3 readers follows the guidelines of Ellyn Satter’s program, Division of Responsibility. It is our job as parents to make mealtimes pleasant, teach our kids appropriate mealtime behavior, and instill healthy eating habits.
It is important not to make eating a performance issue. Eating everything on their plate is not a measure of success (contrary to what we probably went through as kids!).
Eating until their body tells them they’re full is what demonstrates true success.
Think about it…
If a child is always praised for cleaning their plate, then they start to ignore their natural body cues and keep eating despite being full. This sends the wrong message. This is how people develop eating issues as they become adults!
We must teach our kids to listen to bodies.
Key Take Aways
Here are the 8 most effective tools or things to remember when it comes to mealtimes:
- You choose what to eat (but include 1 thing that you know they like), where to eat it, and when to eat it. Your child chooses how much to eat.
- Set a visual timer for the amount of time you want them to sit at the table with you.
- No coaxing or begging to eat their food (or forcing a certain number of bites).
- No bribing with dessert or any other rewards.
- Keep a neutral attitude about what they eat or how much they eat. If they eat nothing, great. If they eat everything, fine. Stay cool, mama.
- If they throw food or plate, give 1 warning that if they throw again then mealtime will be over (they still need to sit at the table until their timer goes off though). Follow through if they do it again. Have them help you clean up the mess.
- If they throw utensils, give 1 warning that if they throw again then their utensils will be taken away. Follow through.
- Implement a scheduled nighttime snack.
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