Many parents feel as though mealtimes are out of their control — they harp and fight with their kids to eat certain foods, yet ultimately, their kids are in charge. In my nutrition counseling practice, I often meet with worried and frustrated parents of “picky eaters” who describe scenarios of their kids orchestrating meals, while they scramble to appease them, hoping they’ll ingest some nutritious food.
Special meals are made, phrases of pleading, coaxing and bribing overtake the dinnertime conversation, and panicked parents are left feeling stressed and hopeless.
Mealtimes for many parents are anything but pleasant. Much to the contrary, they can be dreadful.
It is clear to me, when I meet these well-meaning parents for the first time, that their household feeding roles are completely reversed…and they have no idea. Kids are ultimately in charge of what, when and where food is served, and parents are doing their darndest to control whether and how much their kids eat.
This is opposite of what it should be.
To grow healthy, happy, and confident eaters, parents must set healthy boundaries. Kids should be granted the control of whether and how much they eat, but that is it.
This is challenging, especially when kids are going through picky eating phases. I’ve been there and I get it.
So, does this sound familiar? …
Your child refuses to eat, so you give in and stop asking him to come to the table.
He complains about what’s served, so you make him a peanut butter sandwich because you know he’ll eat it.
He whines about feeling hungry before bed (even though he didn’t eat at dinnertime) so you give him yogurt and a banana in hopes that he’ll go to bed peacefully and not wake up hungry.
If it does, you’re certainly not alone.
But, I want to share the one KEY strategy that will create more peaceful mealtimes and minimize stress when it comes to feeding:
Set Healthy Mealtime Boundaries and Stick to Them:
By establishing some appropriate mealtime boundaries with your kids (and enforcing them consistently), you can regain control over mealtimes (the what’s, where’s and when’s of feeding) and allow your kids to take care of the rest (whether and how much they eat). This is the cornerstone of childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. Parents are in charge of what is served, where it is served and when it is served. Kids are in charge of whether and how much they eat. Establishing these boundaries early on (in infancy and early toddlerhood) makes things a lot easier as they get older, but these boundaries can be set at any time (the older they are, the more patient you’ll have to be).
Some of our mealtime boundaries are as follows…
1. Everyone must come to the table for meals, but there is no rule that they have to eat:
Five words that you will want to use A LOT are: YOU DON’T HAVE TO EAT. When my son says “But I’m not hungry” or “I don’t want spaghetti again!” I calmly reply “You do not have to eat, but it’s mealtime and you must come to the table.” Nine times out of 10, he eats a fair amount of his meal happily. My kids aren’t excused until at least 10-15 minutes have passed and must ask to be excused. If you have a slow eater, you may want to set a timer for 30 minutes so that meals don’t drag on forever and ever. This allows your child to better pace him/herself during a meal.
2. There are no toys, screens, or other distractions at meals:
We reserve mealtime for family/catching up time and discourage mindless/distracted eating.
3. Mealtime manners must be followed:
Sitting properly at the table, not throwing food or making rude comments, using age-appropriate utensils and being polite are rules that we keep in our house.
4. There are no special meals:
Although I offer lots of variety and I always serve at least one food that I know my kids like, there is one meal (and only one) served–I’m not a short-order cook.
5. The kitchen is closed after mealtime:
If I feel that my kids haven’t eaten enough, I remind them that it’s a good idea to make sure that their tummies are satisfied because the kitchen will be closed until __ o’clock (or the next morning). Requests or demands for snacks outside of these times are gently turned down, with a reminder that they had a chance to eat at the last meal or snack, and they chose not to. Over time, kids learn how to regulate their appetite healthfully this way.
6. There’s no grazing:
Random requests for snacks or milk are often gently turned down, and instead, we decide when snack time is according to when meal times were. Because my kids are 5 and 2, we offer a snack in between most meals and sometimes before bed (not often), so that there are eating opportunities every 2-3 hours or so. Kids have small tummies, so need to eat this often, but they do not need to graze around the clock–this in fact often spurs mealtime battles. Here’s more on why you should end the graze craze.
These are our personal mealtime boundaries and might work well for your family too. Know that each family is unique and you should tailor your own to what works for you and your family.
To help you get started with healthy mealtime boundaries, here’s a list of acceptable and unacceptable mealtime behaviours that work really well in our house!
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