mother asking child to come to the dinner table, where her siblings and dad are already seated


4 simple rules for stress-free family meals

Dec 15, 2017

As a mom of three little ones, I know firsthand how stressful meals can be. But we have less chaotic and happier family mealtimes when I set — and maintain — some boundaries. When I do this, my kids know what to expect, which means less testing of boundaries and far fewer mealtime meltdowns.

The key to stress-free family meals is to maintain your role of the “feeder” (you decide what, when and where food is served), and to let your children do their job as the “eaters” (they decide if and how much they eat).

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This feeding philosophy, based on Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, takes the pressure off both parents and kids, creating happier family meals.

Minimize picky eating and mealtime battles by setting these four mealtime boundaries with your kids:

1. You set the timetable

As a parent, you should decide when mealtimes happen. Otherwise, eating can easily become a free-for-all event. When this happens, kids often refuse to eat at mealtimes because they're full, which can create a power struggle at the table. Kids should have eating opportunities every two to three hours — frequently enough to keep their energy levels up, but far enough apart to allow them to become hungry between meals. When you establish a timetable and more or less stick to it, your kids will learn to self-regulate.

2. Start using these magic mealtime words

Instead of arguing when your children resist coming to the table for a meal, use these magic mealtime words: “You don’t have to eat." It may seem counterintuitive, but it will make your life a lot easier. It takes the pressure off your children, you'll likely dodge a mealtime battle and nine times out of ten, your children will eat once they’ve sat down with the rest of the family. Include one or two foods that you know your children like — this ensures they will have something to eat, even if they don’t like or aren’t ready to try the other foods. This also makes trying a new, unfamiliar food less scary.

3. Make mealtime about family time, rather than get-my-kid-to-eat time

If your children refuse to eat with the rest of the family for whatever reason, you can tell them it's okay, but they must stay seated. Teach them that mealtimes aren’t just about eating, but also about connecting with family. Meals present a great opportunity to connect as a family and to model healthy eating. (After all, the biggest determinant of healthy eating in kids is modelling from parents.)

4. Establish some table rules

Decide what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at the table and stick to it. Here are the acceptable and unacceptable behaviours in our home:

10 Mealtime Dos and Don'ts | Acceptable Mealtime Behaviours: 1. Saying

If your kid is tasting food and they don't like it, that's OK. But teach them to politely spit it out into a napkin, rather than be rude about it. Also, maybe your child is still getting used to utensils. In that case, as long as they're trying, don't sweat if if they go back to their hands every once in a while. And when I say play with food, I'm referring to a more tactile approach: stacking; feeling; organizing and separating.

The most important thing is that you stay consistent with your mealtime expectations, so your kids know what is acceptable and what is not.

Article Author Sarah Remmer
Sarah Remmer

Read and watch more from Sarah here.

Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Remmer Nutrition Consulting, a nutrition consulting and communications company based in Calgary, Alberta. Her website and blog contain practical tips and advice for parents and families on feeding and nutrition (everything from pre-natal nutrition to teens), as well as nutritious and easy recipes and videos. Follow Sarah on Facebook for free advice, tips and family-friendly recipes!

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