If you came to our house during dinner time a few years ago, you’d see me reminding my kids to “sit down in the chair” several times.
You’d also see some food on the floor.
Maybe some chair rocking.
Getting kids to listen at the dinner table is a HUGE challenge point for families.
And it turns out, this is a very common struggle.
Each week I receive countless emails from parents wondering…
- how to handle picky eating
- how much should a toddler eat
- how to get a child to eat vegetables
- how to get kids to sit at the table
- and just all around mealtime manners
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Kids and food: It’s a battle.
You can spend hours cooking a meal and your kids barely eat it. In fact, most of it ends up on the floor.
Then in a strange plot twist, your strong willed child will have the nerve to ask for a snack five minutes later.
Or even worse, you find them eating the food off the floor like they found a piece of buried treasure. If they didn’t like it at dinner time, why on earth would they want to eat it a day later when it’s old, crusty and gross?!
Here’s a secret.
When kids find food on the floor, examine it, taste it and then eat it, there’s no pressure.
It’s on their terms.
Similarly, when kids ask for a snack five minutes after refusing dinner, it’s on their terms.
No one is watching them like a cat about to pounce a mouse, and their food experience is absent of micromanagement or phrases that sound like…
“Take one more bite.”
“You only get dessert if you eat your vegetables.”
“You didn’t even try it!”
Old habits are hard to break.
So much of traditional parenting teaches us that it is our job to make sure our kids eat. That kids need to clean their plates because “children are starving in Africa.“
But the truth is that by using phrases like “Take one more bite” or bribing our kids to eat for dessert, we are unknowingly creating more resistance at the dinner table.
Plus, cleaning our plates doesn’t actually solve starvation in another continent, nor does it teach kids to be grateful for what they have. But that’s another post (See here: The Best Way to Raise Grateful Kids)
Getting kids to listen at the dinner table.
Raising a healthy eater is important to me, and if you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance it’s important to you too.
So it’s time to start working smarter, not harder, and get kids to participate in family dinner time without engaging in a constant power struggle.
Release the responsibility.
At first, this statement from my pediatrician hit me like a ton of bricks: It is not our job to get our kids to eat.
It was a huge realization to me that I didn’t need to try to “control” or “manage” my child’s food intake.
Our pediatrician reinforced that it IS our job to offer healthy food choices at regular intervals, but it is not our job to make sure the food goes in the mouth and down the hatch.
Kids are amazing food regulators.
If your child is developmentally healthy, then it is safe to allow your child to regulate their own food. Kids will not innately starve themselves. Releasing myself from the responsibility and the worry of making my kids eat, I felt a huge sigh of relief!
Take bribery out of the equation.
Kids get into the “What’s in it for me?” mentality when you introduce bribery into mealtimes (or other aspects of parenting). Bribery has a way of creeping into the home of all parents. I know I’m raising my hand!
But I realized I wasn’t making parenting easier on myself when I did this. Bribery turns things into a constant power struggle and negotiation because kids think, “Well if I don’t get anything, then I’m not doing it. What do I get for this?”
Use natural consequences to your advantage.
When kids eat, they eliminate their hunger pangs. When they don’t eat, they feel hungry and it gets uncomfortable. This is the natural consequence to eating versus not eating.
Don’t feel like you have to battle with your kids over food when nature will do all the work for you.
At a turning point a few years ago, my son was so hungry at dinnertime, he devoured a whole tomato like it was a juicy apple. I didn’t have to negotiate with him to make a healthy choice.
To give you another example, back when we lived in Japan, kids and teachers and even the principal are served the same meal for school lunch. Everyone eats the same exact meal together. Take it or leave it.
Here’s the crazy part…
All the kids eat it. They don’t get dessert or a second meal choice because “they don’t like it.” When kids experience the natural consequence of hunger, they adapt.
Remove the junk.
It’s very hard to motivate children to make healthy choices when they are allowed to make unhealthy choices to quench their hunger between meals.
I know this is hard, but removing the junk from your home is actually very freeing. When your pantry is stocked with healthy choices there is no battle over junk food. Your kids get to choose different snacks and you easily say “yes” because it’s all reasonably healthy.
Obviously, you can’t make a bunch of crazy food and expect kids to love it immediately. Prepare and offer healthy meals that contain at least 60 percent of foods that you know your child will like and 40 percent newer foods. You can deem whatever percentage is reasonable, but you get the idea.
Know their development level.
If your child is age two or three, it is developmentally normal for them not to be able to sit at the dinner table for more than five minutes. Young kids naturally want to keep moving around at. all. times. (See info on vestibular and proprioceptive input)
Release yourself from the battle of trying to get a toddler to sit at the table through an entire meal. When your kids get older, it is going to be so much easier to expect them sit at the table for thirty minutes.
For now, when your child does sit at the table, acknowledge the behavior you liked, knowing that your ultimate goal is to allow your child to eat a healthy meal.
A simple step-by-step approach to peaceful mealtimes.
There is a simple approach to getting kids to listen at the dinner table. It will help reduce mealtime power struggles, increase cooperation and make your mealtimes more peaceful.
- Offer healthy food choices at consistent times each day (4-5 times per day).
- Make food available only for a certain period of time (e.g. 30 minutes) then remove it.
- Allow your kids to decide how much to eat and what.
- When your kids do something you like during mealtimes, let them know.
- Make it fun. We loved this Chew Chew Set during the toddler and preschool years! There are two color choices.
When we tell our kids something they did well, they will usually start to do more of it. Here are a few examples of helpful phrases to say at the dinner table.
“You tried all the foods on your plate. That shows you’re a healthy eater.”
“You sat at the table through the whole meal. That shows you’re patient and respectful.”
“You thanked the cook for your meal. That shows you’re polite and grateful.”
In Language of Listening®, these are called STRENGTHs, and they help kids tie a behavior to their inner greatness based on observations. So this is not fluff or empty praise. The child can see it in themselves, and their future actions are based out of it. Kids will start to show you more of these qualities!
It’s not perfect, but it’s peaceful.
If you came to my house at dinner time, you may see a mess of food on the floor. You’d also see some days are a struggle to sit through the whole meal or eat more than two bites.
Yet, our mealtimes are more peaceful than ever before.
I no longer attend every food argument to which I am invited. I no longer try to control what and how much my kids eat. They are amazing food regulators, and as far as I can see, they are growing up as healthy and happy as the next kid, who used to eat stale food off the floor.
Print this free printable checklist.
This post comes with a free printable checklist to help with picky eating! Let your kids challenge themselves to circle all the fruits and vegetables they’ve tried. Plus, get an “Eat the Rainbow” placemat for mealtimes.
Here is a sneak preview!
Download Your Free Printable
- Download the checklist. You’ll get the printable, plus join my weekly newsletter!
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
- Place it on your refrigerator. Check things off as you go and don’t forget a thing!
Want more on parenting?
- 9 Genius Phrases to Use When Dealing With a Strong-Willed Child
- The Tantrum Taming Tip Most Parents Don’t Know About
- What No One Tells You About Parenting Toddler Boys
- 2-Year-Old Not Listening? Try this Remarkable Tip
I've created a free email series just for you! If you are struggling with teaching your child to listen, this series will help transform your parenting. Yes, really. I've seen my proven strategies work time and time again for parents. I know it can work for you too.
After taking my free email series, you will:
- Learn simple, yet highly effective listening strategies
- Experience a stronger connection with your child
- Enjoy more peaceful parenting days
- Gain more cooperation from your child