Managing Meals: How to Take the Struggles Out of Mealtime with Kids

Father and child wash vegetables at sink in small, bright kitchenA few months ago, I identified and acknowledged one of my biggest stressors in raising young children: mealtime. The constant battles during meals, nagging the kids to stay at the table, concerns about whether they are getting enough nutrition, inability to eat in peace amid the many requests, and frustration regarding all the food and spilled drinks on the floor are painful enough.

Worse is managing these things while fielding the judgmental voice of my mom, in person or in my head, critiquing my parenting decisions and expressing disdain over the audacity I would “let the kids go to bed hungry.”

I know I have good instincts when it comes to raising kids. And my training in child development lends itself to having knowledge and tools that prove useful. Yet I found myself second-guessing my decisions and feeling stressed about feeding my children. I began to realize I was allowing unsolicited advice, critical comments, and a stream of perceived judgment to get under my skin and negatively impact my mood.

My mom and her mom—both wonderful mothers and grandmothers—come from a line of women who believe in spoon-feeding and stuffing babies until they are fatter than Thanksgiving turkeys. They’ve spent hours on end tricking toddlers into taking yet another bite. Although my kids were growing normally and were above average in the height and weight percentiles, I found myself falling victim to the suggestion that, somehow, I was not feeding them properly or enough.

I began to realize how much I dreaded meals, especially dinner, not only because of the tedious routine involved in preparing meals and getting kids to eat them, but also because of the way I wound up feeling like a failure because of my kids’ (ages 4, 2, and 6 months) inability to sit politely at the table while graciously gobbling up every bite. Sick of feeling defeated every evening, I signed up for a lecture on mealtimes with toddlers that was being offered through our preschool.

I listened with relief (and a slight sense of smugness) as the presenter confirmed that much of the advice recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics was consistent with my line of thinking when it comes to feeding kids. She confirmed it is normal for children to have day-to-day and meal-to-meal appetite changes. Not only do their appetites vary in terms of how much they eat, their interest in certain foods can flip-flop at the drop of a hat. It’s not worth getting frustrated or arguing with your child over the fact he loved black beans last night yet refuses to touch them today. And if your kid eats 10 chicken nuggets for lunch today but nothing all day tomorrow, that’s okay. Experts recommend we look at children’s nutrition over the course of a full month rather than at every meal, daily, or even from week to week.

It was useful for me to be reminded that kids’ stomachs are quite small and don’t need as much food as we may think. Contrary to my well-intended mother’s conviction, a child will not die from skipping a meal; in fact, it’s normal for a child to sometimes be disinterested in food all day. She will eventually make up for it with a huge appetite another time. As long as children eat well at some meals, it’s okay if they barely touch their food during others. Keeping this in mind allows me to let go of much of the frustration that was ruining my meals.

More important than ensuring children eat every bite is avoiding power struggles related to food. When we force children to eat when they are not hungry or interested, or when we insist, “You must be hungry, you need to eat,” we inadvertently set them up to ignore their own body signals. Children need to learn to recognize, trust, and listen to their hunger cues—to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. When we force kids to eat, bribe them, or create the expectation they must finish everything on their plates for us to feel proud of them, we set them up for struggles later in life. Eating disorders, overeating, and using food as a coping mechanism may develop as ways to self-soothe and cope with stress.

Rather than nag children about eating, we need to teach them lessons about nutrition and food and then allow them to make choices. This sometimes means learning the consequences of poor decisions. For example, you might explain, “I’m worried that if you don’t eat your dinner, you may be hungry later,” allow them to decide whether they eat, and let them experience the consequence of feeling hungry later if they refuse dinner. This helps them to learn.

When you eliminate ultimatums, micromanaging, pressure, and control issues over food, you can relinquish some of the frustration that comes with parenting a toddler. You can also instill in your children healthier messaging around eating.

Being consistent with meals and snacks helps children to know what to expect and learn to regulate their appetite. Experts recommend that adults eat with children as often as possible and that everyone eat the same meal. No short-order cooking or making separate meals for kids. Caregivers should control the specifics of meals—the what, when, and where regarding food being served—but children should be allowed to control what they eat off their plates and how much. That’s right—children can refuse to eat specific foods and decline taking even one bite. Parents should choose healthy foods and ensure that at least one item per meal is something the child likes.

In our house, I recommend everyone try at least one bite of each food, even if they think they don’t or won’t like it. We talk about how taste buds change, and I allow the kids to spit the bite into a napkin if they don’t like it. Hard as it may be, I also try to remember that it’s normal for them to not sit still, to play with food, and to make a mess. Depending on age, it’s all part of learning about their world, developing hand-eye coordination, testing limits, and becoming independent.

When you eliminate ultimatums, micromanaging, pressure, and control issues over food, you can relinquish some of the frustration that comes with parenting a toddler. You can also instill in your children healthier messaging around eating.

To recap and give some additional advice I found helpful:

  • Do not engage in power struggles or use food to control behavior. This sets kids up to ignore their hunger cues and to associate food with reward and punishment. Instill the message that your job as a parent is to provide healthy food. Reinforce “this is what we are having to eat tonight” but let children make choices regarding what and how much they eat.
  • Avoid snacks and drinks too close to meals. Snacking or drinking too much, especially milk, can make children fill up quickly and thus be uninterested in meals. Space snacks out and limit milk intake so children have an appetite at mealtime.
  • Look broadly at children’s nutrition rather than stressing about what they eat at each meal. Ensure that children are getting a well-balanced diet overall, but know it’s normal for their appetite to wax and wane, especially after age 1 when their rate of growth rapidly declines.
  • Involve kids in meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, and setting the table. When kids feel involved in the process of preparing and serving food, they not only learn invaluable lessons, they may feel more invested in eating.
  • Make sure kids try new foods, including a lot of colors and textures. Kids are naturally curious. Unfortunately, kids’ menus tend to include the same, old offerings—chicken fingers, grilled cheese, and fries. The more you can introduce new and diverse foods, the more open your kids may be to new things.
  • Do not use dessert as a reward or withhold it as a punishment. This sets kids up to have unhealthy associations with food and sweets that can lead to later difficulties with overeating, overindulging, or using food as an unhealthy coping mechanism.
  • Dessert doesn’t always have to be cookies, cake, and ice cream. Some nights, the dessert could include yogurt, fruit, or banana muffins.
  • Make meals fun! Read books (especially one on manners) during dinner with the kids, use table-talk cards with questions to initiate conversations, and come up with silly games to play as a family while you eat. Experts recommend avoiding distractions, including TVs and gadgets, during mealtime. But bending the rules so adults can enjoy meals at a restaurant every now and then is okay.

It was validating to step outside of the chaos of my kitchen and hear that my “laid-back” way of handling mealtimes was, in fact, in line with recommendations by the “experts.” Following the presentation I attended, my husband and I sat down with our kids and explained we were going to make some family rules around mealtime. Together, we created a list of rules to make meals more enjoyable for us all. In hopes it inspires your own transformation out of chaos into “hectic but good family fun,” I share with you my family’s list of mealtime rules:

  • Kids help set the table when a grown-up asks for help.
  • Kids come to the table quickly when a grown-up calls them to eat.
  • Grown-ups are in charge of what food to serve at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Kids are in charge of what and how much they eat. Kids can choose their own food during snack times or if a grown-up asks what they want to eat.
  • Everybody should try a bite of each food, even if they think they didn’t like it last time. If you don’t like something, you can spit it out (in a napkin) and don’t have to eat any more of it this time.
  • Everybody listens to their body to know how hungry they are and when they are full.
  • We can play talking games, tell jokes, and talk about our days during dinner. Television and iPads are okay only when grown-ups say so.
  • Kids stay at the table and in their chairs, even if they are not hungry or are done eating, until the grown-ups say they can leave.
  • Kids clear their plates and help wash dishes if a grown-up asks.

Raising toddlers can be a wonderful, though trying, experience. Don’t let mealtimes drag you down. By avoiding tension and frustration related to eating, you can make meals a more pleasant and valuable experience for everyone.

If you’re struggling as a parent, don’t hesitate to contact a licensed counselor who has experience with child and adolescent issues.

Reference:

Toddler – Food and feeding. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/HALF-Implementation-Guide/Age-Specific-Content/Pages/Toddler-Food-and-Feeding.aspx

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Chrissy

    Chrissy

    April 24th, 2018 at 10:12 AM

    OMG I love these ideas! Especially the notion that a kid shouldn’t get to pick what is being prepared (as long as you make one thing they like) but rather how much of it they eat. I definitely struggle with feeling like a bad mom when my child doesn’t eat what I make and I worry about him being hungry. I have to get out of the “is it abusive if my kid doesn’t get enough to eat and it’s his choice?” mind set. Momma guilt is real LOL.

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