How to Develop Positive Mealtime Routines for Your Child

CME WebsitesChild Routines, Mealtime, Parent Routines

In our busy lives, mealtimes can be simultaneously a brief reprieve from a hectic schedule and one of the most chaotic points in a family’s daily routine.  Mealtimes can be a time to check in with one another, hold hands, sit on laps, tell funny stories and report important events.  They can also be times full of temper tantrums, thrown food, non-compliance and bickering.  The wish for most families is to have more of a “checking-in” feeling and less of a “food-throwing” feeling associated with their mealtimes.  Following a set routine and establishing expectations well in advance and in a consistent manner can help foster a smooth and successful family mealtime.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Plan simple and quick meals that don’t require a lot pots and pans.  Save that fancy recipe for a weekend meal or a grown up dinner party.
  • Prepare as much of the meal as possible in advance.
  • Let the children help shop for, put away and prepare the foods that they eat.
  • Start encouraging your children to “help” set the table from a young age.  Even two year olds can place spoons on the table.  This is a perfect opportunity to work on language skills and following directions:  “Put the spoons beside the plates.” Kids enjoy feeling that they’re “helping” and it keeps them busy for the five minutes that they would otherwise be pestering their siblings or getting into the pantry for a snack!
  • Slow down!  Try serving the meal “family style” and help the kids pass serving dishes around the table and to serve themselves appropriate portions.  Encourage them to ask for items to be passed to them.  Again, this is the perfect opportunity to work on language skills and table manners (“I want more potatoes please.” or “Please pass the chicken.”) and fine motor skills (using utensils, self feeding, etc.)

Encourage your child to at least try a bit of each food.  Forcing them to eat something they don’t like will only associate negative feelings with mealtime and will escalate emotions that are not conducive to a calm and pleasant family time.  If your child has an extremely limited repertoire of foods that he/she will eat, you might want to consider getting an OT evaluation.

For children who resist sitting at the table for appropriate amounts of time, auditory or visual timers can be helpful.  The amount of time the child is expected to sit at the table can gradually be increased over a period of time.  The child should be rewarded with verbal praise for each successful effort at sitting at the table.  Some children may require an external reward such as a sticker or small treat.

If misbehavior occurs during a meal, calmly explain to your child that the dinner table is not an appropriate place to scream, throw food, stand on the chair, etc.  If the behavior occurs again, calmly remove your child from the table and tell them that they may return when they’re ready to behave appropriately.  ALWAYS be sure to model the behavior that you expect of your child.
At the end of the meal, encourage your child again to “help” clear the table and clean up the dishes.  Even very young children can help out in small ways.  One year olds will feel so important if they’re asked to throw the napkins away!

Mealtimes can no doubt, be an incredibly stressful time for families.  These suggestions may help to alleviate some of the stress associated with mealtimes but there will certainly be times that none of them seemed to work.  Gradually, over time, and done consistently, these strategies will establish an expectation and routine for family meals.  That’s not to say that there won’t ever be nights again where more of the spaghetti ends up on the floor than in your child’s belly or that you’re left exhausted, sitting at a table that looks like a miniature war zone.  On those nights, put the kids to bed, make yourself a cup of tea and be happy that mealtimes only happen three times a day!

by Kate Brennan M.Ed. and Developmental Specialist