How To Organize Your Mealtimes So That Your Kids Behave At Dinner Time
A big thank you to Kristen for having me on the blog today.
If we haven’t yet me, I’m Ana, a Baby and Kids Holistic Nutritionist and Picky Eating Coach. You can find me over at Nourished Little Munchkins where I blog about ways to get your baby, toddler or kid to eat using researched-backed, non-punitive and fun strategies.
For those of you that may not know me, I’m a picky eater as well, mainly because I’m a supertaster and that means I taste bitter foods super intensely [read she loves sweets :)]
But, enough about me! I’m here to chat about how to create a mealtime routine to save you time, get your kids to co-operate at mealtimes and save you a few gray hairs.
There’s a good reason why dinnertime is one of the hardest times for you and your kids. We all know the feeling. Rushing to wrap up your work. Rushing to pick them up from daycare. Rushing to make dinner. All the while praying that they will eat something other than their noodles.
That’s a version of the story most of us go through. Let’s look at it from your child’s perspective.
If you have a picky eater on your hands or simply a tired child, the best way to save time (and heartache) at mealtimes is to create a mealtime structure with defined rules and expectations of everyone.
Trust me when I say that not only will it save you time, but it will give you flexibility, fewer mealtime battles, and your kids eating more foods.
Why Create a Mealtime Routine
When I counsel parents on how to approach feeding, the first thing we establish is a mealtime environment. First, we have to get our kids to come to the table and stay at the table before any work on actually eating can begin to happen.
Kids spend much of their lives not being in control of what happens to them. How their day goes. What to wear. What to eat. Creating a predictable and stable mealtime structure automatically relieves a level of anxiety they have about the unknown.
When will I eat next?
Is it something that will make me feel bad?
I’m tired! Are my parents going to try to negotiate how many bites again?
How am I going to get out of eating something I don’t like?
Those thoughts. Those worries. They won’t be anymore. And that’s when they will have room to focus on their hunger and the food you offer.
Here are the set of rules to implement in your mealtime routine.
You decide when to serve meals (including snacks)
In order to fill their caloric requirement, toddlers and kids need to eat every 2 to 3 hours. This works out to 5 or 6 meals each day.
The closer you are to the 2 hour mark, the least hungry and willing your child will be to come to the table. By the 3 hour mark, you should notice that they are hovering around the kitchen, or even ask you for a snack. Past the 3.5 hour mark, you are risking the hangies and they become crankier and grumpier.
The best way to figure out when to have a mealtime is to use your child’s school snack and break times and work from there. If your child has a snack time at 9:15 am. Then you know that your breakfast should end anytime between 6:15 and 7:15 am.
Figuring out an optimal dinnertime is the easy part. It’s making it happen that is harder. For example, most schools have a snack give or take around 2:30 pm. If you add 3 hours that makes dinnertime at 5:30 pm.
When I had my 9 to 5 corporate job, it was really hard to make that happen. You’ll have to play around with adding a small snack in between … say at 4:30 pm and pushing dinner back to 6:30 pm or letting them go with 3.5 or 4 hours in between meals and see how your child responds.
My bet is that three meals back to back that are 2 hours apart will not leave your older child hungry enough for dinner time. But it might work well for 12 month olds and younger toddlers.
You decide where everyone eats
It might seem silly to point it out, but having space in your home where everyone eats creates a sort of routine and familiarity. In the bedroom, we sleep. In the bathroom we clean. In the laundry room, we do laundry.
If you’re used to eating on the couch or in front of the TV, work at having your main meals and snacks in a distraction-free space. It can be the dinner table or the breakfast nook. Whatever makes sense. It sets the tone that when everyone is in that space, the main focus is eating.
You decide with who your child eats
Best practice? Sit down and eat with your child.
With hectic lives and widely varying schedules, eating together as a family for every meal might be impossible. Luckily, studies have shown that eating together as little as 3 times a week help kids get the hang of food.
Aim to sit with your child for as many meals as possible.
You decide what to make for dinner
This is one rule that is important you establish ASAP. You choose what to make for dinner. Not your kids. That means no more short order cooking. See I told you you’ll save time!
The key to making everyone happy when adding this rule in your mealtime structure is to ensure you serve enough preferred foods on the table. From my experience, having 3 out of 6 foods be familiar or preferred foods really helps keep tantrums at bay.
This is where I like to point out that I said 6 foods. Not 6 dishes. An example of foods at a meals can be chicken breast, roasted sweet potato wedges, noodles, pickles, ketchup and hummus. Between condiments, small sides and sauces you can easily have 6 foods available at the table.
Your child decides how much and if they want to eat at all
For parents, this is the hardest rule to implement. No one escapes that crushing pain in their soul when their child refuses to eat.
Giving up this control to your child might seem like madness at first, but it’s freeing … I promise.
When you think about it, at the heart of teaching kids to eat food, there are only two lessons we should aim to convey to them.
First, there is only one reason your child should choose to eat. Because they’re hungry.
Not because you offered ice cream after taking 4 bites.
Not because they feel guilty for disappointing you or want to make you happy.
Not because they are talked their ear off until they have a few bites just to stop the badgering.
Not because they want to be a good boy/girl.
Not because they want to make you proud because they cleaned their plate
Second, there is only one reason they should stop eating. Because they are full.
Everything we do at the dinner table. What we say. How we interact with our kids. We should keep those principles in mind.
Earlier I was telling you about how kids have such little say in their lives. This is a way of giving them control over to them.
To really feel good and confident about this rule, you must have nailed the other ones. In particular, you’ll want o make sure your mealtime spacing is on point and that there are enough preferred foods to be a real choice for them.
The entire idea is that we don’t say anything to pressure our kids to eat. We don’t try to bribe them, offer them dessert, or ask them to take a bite. We let them choose what and how much they eat.
What happens next
In my experience, creating a mealtime structure does not automatically guarantee that kids will expand their food lists. Each child is different … has different physical, emotional, behavioral and sensory needs.
One thing they do have in common is the need for structure and an environment where they can safely explore food on their own terms.
And that’s what this first step for creating a mealtime routine is designed to do. It leaves room for food exploration. For food play. For adding feeding strategies, we carefully choose to implement be executed.
We refine what word to say. What words to not say. How to be firm yet supportive. How to teach our kids to eat different foods in a respectful way. Build a toolkit we can use no matter what the situation. How to tell what strategy is the right one for your child.
And that’s what we learn in From Picky To Eating. It’s my flagship feeding kids course where I guide you through a 5 steps program to help you and your child implement an easy, non-punitive and uncommonly fun way to help your child eat new foods.
We dive into uncovering the reason why your child is not eating well and then I show you what tool to use for your specific situation. No more guessing if a solution you read in a mom Facebook group will work. No more wasting time being a short order cook. And no more
As a big thank you to Kristen for having me here with her, I’m so excited to offer you 40% off From Picky To Eating using Kristen’s special coupon code KWPICKY40.
About The Author
Ana-Maria Janes R.H.N is a Baby and Kids Holistic Nutritionist and a Picky Eating Coach. She’s also the Founder of Nourished Little Munchkins and runs where she helps parents of kids with feeding challenges get their munchkins to eat again. To learn more about getting your picky eaters to eat, you can catch her over inside the Feeding Little Munchkins Facebook group, or download her guide “Top 10 Crazy Easy Tricks To Help Your Picky Eater…EAT”.