Mealtime is a busy period of the day when schedules converge and stress is often high. Power struggles about refusing to sit at the table with the family, veggie battles, and food complaints often dominate mealtimes. For some parents dinnertime can even feel like an emotional wrestling match with the kids. Most parents have all experienced power struggles, defiance, and various other mealtime conflicts to some degree.
Common mealtime questions and concerns:
Parents often ask me how to remedy mealtime woes they experience. Can you relate to any of these?
“Please give me some meal time suggestions. The kids barely sit at the table and refuse to eat what I serve.”
“My Mom got my daughter a Disney Princess table and chair and she wants to eat at it while she watches TV. So she eats in the living room while my husband and I eat in the dining room. I miss our family dinners but trying to get her sit sit with us just usually leads to meltdowns.”
“The first response to anything I serve is ‘EWWW, gross!’ Sometimes they take one bite but most of dinner is spent with them playing with toys followed by them fighting with each other in some way. It usually ends up with me screaming. What should I do to change it?”
“My boys are always standing on there chairs at the dinner table even after I ask them to sit 20 times. Not sure what to do to get them to listen and sit down at the table.”
The secret is in the cycles:
It’s important to recognize that the issues we face at mealtime are not necessarily an issue of “mealtime” as much as they are a cycle of several different issues coming together in the perfect storm. The meal time scenario is a great example of dealing with cycles in our parenting. When we step back and look at the whole cycle unfold each day we can start, step by step, piece by piece to change our families negative mealtime cycles to positive ones. Everything won’t change all at once, but we can start to understand and then intervene with each part that we have influence over.
It’s also important to realize, especially with young children that sometimes behaviors seem to get worse before they get better when making a significant transition or change, so remember to think of the long game, have specific positive objectives in mind and be flexible in your problem solving.
Some of the parts I see in the mealtime cycle are things like…
1. Managing our own emotions and reactions:It’s important to learn and practice specific tools and skills to manage your own reactions regardless of what your kids do. In my “Stop Yelling in 21 Days Coaching Course” I include a section that focuses on several mind/body techniques and tools to help parents manage their emotions and reactions because when we yell and freak out we tend to undo all the positive things we are actually trying teach our kids.
2. Evaluate our own expectations (are they realistic?):Realize that 2 to 5 year old children are going to have a hard time sitting for an extended period of time. Most kids don’t like veggies, they often complain and are picky eaters. You are not alone in your frustrations. In my experience, all 3 to 5 year old children (especially boys) stand in their seats regularly. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay and that you shouldn’t set limits and boundaries in this regard to your expectations, just know that those limits and boundaries will be broken and will require you to remind the kids to sit again and again. This isn’t because they are deliberately trying to bug you. It’s simply because that’s what kids do.
3. Incorporate healthy routines and boundaries with kindness and firmness:Every family’s routine and boundaries can be different but its important to determine what your boundaries are and make them known. Most kids are sucked in by TV and would prefer TV time over family dinners. If your a parent who wants to break the“TV watching mealtime cycle” and have family dinners again make your boundary known and express why its important to you. I encouraged one mother to make a small compromise to soften the change with her daughter by bringing her daughter’s Disney table into the dining area and letting her daughter know, “we are going to eat dinner together from now on because I love sitting and talking to you and daddy about your day. I love to have you close while we are eating dinner!” When we make changes like this, kids may very well oppose it at first. However it’s most powerful to simply empathize with the child about the change, but don’t back down. We can offer words like, “It sounds like you really want to eat in the other room. It is hard to make changes like this. I’m glad you are going to eat with us in the dinning room though.”The same principles apply to things like toys at the table or standing in their seats. You can say things like, “I know you really like to have your toys with you. You are welcome to play with them again as soon as we are done with dinner. Please put them in the other room.” When we make requests like, “Sit in your seats” or “ put the toys in the other room” it helps to move toward them, lower your voice, gently touch them to get their attention and help them follow through with the request.
In my own family we are big on eating veggies and often provide several varieties of veggies because we know our kids won’t eat certain veggies. They can than chose their own veggie to eat before they finish their meal. Having options eliminates the argument over eating an unfavorable veggie. My kids will almost always eat a carrot if nothing else meets their fancy and carrots are easy to put on the table. If kids don’t like peas. Don’t feed them peas. Sometimes its best to simply provide what you provide at the table but not to react negatively if it isn’t all eaten to your satisfaction. If you are okay with your kids making something else (and they are capable of doing it themselves), let them do that, if you are not okay with that, offer something nutritious with each meal that they will eat and leave it at that. Realize too that there are many kids in the world that have eaten dip, ketchup and cheese sauce as their main course and they are still alive. Sometimes, we just have to remind ourselves, “that’s okay.”
4. Encourage listening and compliance with effective communication: As I talked about above, when we say our kids don’t listen we usually mean that they don’t comply or do what we ask. A few tips for increasing listening and compliance is to move toward and gently touch them when a direction or request is made. Another is to give an enforceable limit statement like, “You are free to eat your dinner as soon as you are sitting with us in the dinning area.” or “ I would be glad to serve your food as soon as you are sitting in your chairs.”
5. Find custom solutions together that fit your family:One of my favorite methods for changing cycles (not just dinner time but any issue that arises) is to utilize a family night or other fun family time to teach a skill and problem solve together. One mother I worked with asked her boys what their favorite and least favorite parts of the day were as they sat at the dinner table. This was an awesome opportunity to build solutions together. When we breach the subject we could say, “Wow, it sounds like none of us like it when I yell and it seems like dinner time has been a hard time for all of us. What do you think we could do to improve dinner time?” Then brainstorm. Some of their suggestions will probably be ridiculous, but you may be surprised. Identify things both you and the kids can do together to make it better. Write or draw them and post them near the dinner table to remind everyone of the new plan. A child 5 or older will be much more capable developmentally of sitting and discussing solutions with you than a toddler. The important thing is to make the dinner time routine something your children know you look forward to and to enlist their help.
6. Prep them ahead of time for changes:Remember when presenting new routines and boundaries to young kids is that it’s important to prepare them ahead of time rather than just springing it on them one evening. You could use the family night idea above or just say, “tonight is our last night with you in the TV room. Tomorrow we are going to start eating together” That means that everyone in the family eats together in the dining room (parents too). Preparing them is so very important.
Don’t try to do it all at once. Just pick part of the cycle to work on . You’ll find that the other parts of the cycle get easier as you improve one part. The tips above have been powerful principles of positive change for many of the parents I have worked with. The wonderful thing is that they can drastically improve your mealtime experiences but can apply in so many other circumstances and issues as well. Just pick one of thees principles and start applying it today and watch what happens!