Refusal to eat, negotiations, separate meals, tears? Does that sound like your mealtime? Dinner time may have been the most stressful time of day in our house before we implemented a few behavior strategies. Meals consisted of my son telling us he didn’t like the food that was on his plate … which he of course devoured two weeks before without any complaints. Then my daughter would say she didn’t like it, because her brother didn’t want to eat it. Then once we convinced them that they do indeed like the meal they would then proceed to eat at a snail’s pace. One hour later … the kitchen would be clean … bed time would be approaching and they were STILL eating! Oh, and I can’t leave out the negotiations of, “How many bites do I have to eat until I am done?”
A few mealtime strategies can reduce stress and meltdowns in your house and keep meals from turning into a power struggle:
- Stick to the meal that you planned – You are not a short order cook! (Unless there are sensory processing/allergies/etc.) As long as there is at least one item you know your kids like on their plate, there is no need to make separate meals.
- Have all meals at the table – This creates routine and predictability.
- Eat without distractions (TV off) – Mealtime is a great time to talk as a family!
- Create a mealtime schedule – Although hard, try to eat meals around the same time each day.
- For the “snails” – Limit duration of the meal; set a visual timer.
- Reduce snacks between meals – Kids that consume too many snacks will not eat their meals.
- Natural consequences – If your child does not eat their meal, they will be hungry until the next meal. Do not give snacks in between meals.
- Involve kids in the process of shopping for food and preparing the food. If they feel ownership of the meal they are more likely to eat it.
- Time away – If your child has a tantrum, remove them from the table and take them for a break until they are able to calm their body. Once calm they can return to the table to eat. (Same goes for dining out – you can take your child to a time away in your car.)
- Model! Kids learn from their parents – Model how much you enjoy the meal and value meal time together.
As children grow, their eating behavior changes and grows too. These interventions may help reduce your mealtime meltdowns, but you will likely have to adjust your strategy as your child grows older.