If you came to our house during dinner time, you’d see me reminding my strong-willed child to sit down in his chair several times. You’d also see a ton of food on the floor. Like A TON. Getting kids to listen at the dinner table is a HUGE struggle.
And it turns out, I’m not alone in my struggle. Each week I receive multiple emails from parents wondering how to make kids listen around mealtimes.
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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 for us to start working smarter, not harder, and get our 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. Once I released 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.
Just yesterday 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, here in Japan–where I live–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 learn to appreciate food and eat what’s offered.
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.
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 love this Chew Chew Set! 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.”
It’s not perfect, but it’s peaceful.
If you came to my house at dinner time, you’d still see a mess of food on the floor. You’d also see my son 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 eats yesterday’s stale dinner off the floor.
Print this free printable checklist.
This post comes with a free printable checklist with 6 rules to avoid dinner time battles, but nutritional guidelines for toddlers and preschoolers! I always have the hardest time remembering these ideas. This printable simplifies it!
Here is a sneak preview!
Download Your Free Printable
- Download the checklist. You’ll get the printable, plus join my weekly newsletter! Just click here to download and subscribe.
- 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
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