Making Sense of Children’s Eating Habits and Mealtimes


One of the biggest problems that parents face involves children’s eating habits and mealtimes. It’s easy to worry if you feel that your child is not eating enough, or not eating enough of the right foods, or perhaps not eating at all. By far, it’s the most common complaint that I hear from parents of young children.

The first thing to keep in mind is that children are not deliberately trying to turn every meal into a complicated drama. They are not purposely trying to fray your wits by transforming every last-minute dash out the door before the start of school into a comedy of errors. What’s happening is that children are simply testing your boundaries - they want to see what’s permissible, and what’s not. They are looking for structure in their lives.

That’s why behaviors like bribing kids to eat the right foods (ice cream for a clean plate of vegetables!), desperately begging kids to eat what you want them to, or allowing certain unwanted behaviors during meals (playing with food or not sitting at the table), are ultimately destined to fail. If anything, they encourage kids to push against the boundaries even harder.

The starting point to making sense of your children’s eating habits and mealtimes is to find a way to end the everyday drama. Try making meals short and businesslike. Stay calm and don’t let kids see how much you’re affecting them. Avoid letting meals drag on for more than they should -- if your kids aren’t done eating within a certain period of time (say, 30 minutes), then it’s time to start putting away all the plates and put an end to mealtime. If your kids are trying to play with their food, tell them that it’s a signal to put away the food and play somewhere else in the house. That’ll put an end to certain behaviors real fast.

While I’ve found that there are no hard-and-fast rules for dealing with every situation, there are some general rules of thumb for getting meals and eating habits under control:

· Give children your undivided attention during meals. One reason why children “act up” is because they want your attention. Similarly, a refusal to eat certain foods may be rooted in a desire to get your attention (especially if you find yourself fussing over the little ones when they’re not eating).

· Adopt a calm, matter-of-fact approach to mealtime. Don’t overdo the drama, or appear to make too much of any one meal -- especially if your kids aren’t eating what you’ve spent an hour preparing. Kids feed off the drama, and there’s no reason to encourage that.

· Realize that rational arguments aren’t going to be effective. While it’s helpful to respect your kids and treat them like mini-adults, you’re not going to win them over with arguments like “you’re not going to grow up to be big and strong without eating your spinach” -- they’re just too young to have a realistic conception of what that means.

Using these three simple rules, it’s possible to put together a little more structure in mealtime. Mealtime should be exactly that - it shouldn’t be playtime and it certainly shouldn’t be “adventure time.”