When life is busy and we find ourselves with a never ending list of things to do, meal times offer a perfect opportunity for family members to get together, prepare food, set the table, sit down with one another and talk about their day. Meal times are not only important for children to gain the nourishment they need, but for them to learn lifelong social and self-care skills. However, meal times may feel stressful for some parents when children do not eat or behave well and knowing the right thing to do in these situations can be very challenging.
In this blog from the parenting team we offer some suggestions to make meal times manageable and to encourage your child to develop good eating habits.
First We Need to Look at Why Meal Time Problems Occur
- Children often find it hard to sit in one place for long periods of time and can be easily distracted
- Children are more likely to become restless if they find meal times too long and boring
- Parents may have unrealistic expectations about what their children should eat and how much they should eat
- Children may like some food more than others – If children have a variety of foods across the week there is no need to insist they eat foods they do not like, you can try again another day
- Appetite can vary from day to day – All children have days when they are not as hungry as usual
- Children find it hard to get into a good eating routine if they are allowed to eat whenever and whatever they want
- Extra attention at meal times such as coaxing, threatening or reasoning can accidentally reward children for misbehaving at meal times.
How We Can Help Prevent Problems at Meal Times
- Establish a meal time routine. It best to offer three meals a day and around two to three snacks at similar times in the day. It can be helpful to limit mealtimes to around 20- 30 mins, this is usually enough time for your little ones to eat their meal
- Let your child help with food preparation
- Let your child know when the food is almost ready so they can finish what they are doing
- Set rules so children have a clear understanding of how they should be behaving, for example:
- Sit at the table
- Eat with spoon or fork (or encourage them to pick up finger foods to help them to learn to feed themselves)
- Eat with mouth closed (or take their time to bite and chew the food)
- Reward your children for following the rules, which may include a treat activity or an extra story at bedtime.
- Another suggestion might be to use your child’s favourite toy to show your child the steps at mealtimes, praise the toy for following the steps.
How to Manage Behaviour at Meal Times
- Remove all distractions and sit with your child
- Praise them for following the rules and eating well and encourage conversations between all family members
- Use a reward chart to encourage desirable behaviour. For guidance on how to use behaviour charts, find an example by clicking here
- Use planned ignoring for minor problem behaviours like whining or eating slowly. Brace yourself, as the behaviour may get worse before it get better. If we ignore a problem behaviour for a while and then react, your child may continue the problem behaviour to get a reaction
- Act immediately if misbehaviour occurs, tell your child calmly what to stop doing and what to do instead – ‘Henry sit at the table’ Praise your child if they have done as you asked
- When meal time is over, tell your child what you liked about their behaviour
- If problems occurred do not give the reward or any other food until their next meal time
- Reflect on what went well and consider what you might do differently next time e.g. reduce the size of the portion.
If you have any other questions, or if you have tried the strategies suggested and you are still concerned about your child’s progress, seek professional advice.
For information on nutrition for your little ones and courses, follow the link here to our Nutrition Parents Page!