Strategies to Make Family Meals More Enjoyable

Many behavior problems begin at the dinner table.
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Mealtimes are an opportunity for everyone at the table to share, listen, bond, explore, and enjoy. Family meals give children nourishment and a chance to practice communication, sharing, and social skills.

A child's developmental stage directly affects how they engage with the people, food, and environment around them. As a result, mealtimes can feel like ever-changing (and not always relaxing) situations.

Understanding your child's developmental needs—specifically, where food, eating, autonomy, and socialization come in—can help you set up mealtimes that feel more relaxing and positive for everyone.

Your Child's Relationship With Food and Eating

When snags arise at the table, it's important for parents to ask why they might have cropped up. The first step to answering that question is considering what the family eating experience might be like from a child's perspective.

Gathering this insight will help your family find positive solutions to your child's challenges at mealtimes without creating a sense of punishment associated with eating.

Family meals are also a chance for children to learn about body autonomy and practice intuitive eating. The language adults use at meals can have a powerful effect on a child's relationship with food and their body.

Here are some common behaviors that you may encounter with your child at family mealtimes, as well as possible positive solutions.

1. Not Sitting Still Long Enough to Eat

If your child never seems to sit still long enough to finish a meal, you (or others dining with you) might chalk it up to a lack of table manners, but this label isn't accurate or fair.

Ask yourself what the experience of sitting at the table is like for your child. The positive solution for a child who fidgets during meals lies in creating an environment that is comfortable for a smaller body.

A child will sit still for longer if their feet can rest on a solid surface. Imagine how it feels to be sitting in a chair when your feet do not touch the ground. Would you start to swing your feet? Might that distract you from eating?

If your child is still in a highchair, you can attach a platform to the base where their feet can rest. You can even do something as simple as wrapping a bungee cord around it a few times to give them something to put their feet on.

Don't forget that little kids need utensils and plates that are the right size for small hands!

Finding plates, bowls, and cups that are developmentally appropriate for younger children might mean options that suction to the tabletop or high chair top.

You also want to ensure smaller kids can easily reach the table. If components of the meal are not easily accessible, it can make a child feel isolated and bored.

Once the eating environment is safely accessible to kids, you'll need to be realistic about their attention span. When you're planning meals, consider how long a young child can actually sit still.

The language used around mealtime behavior helps kids learn what is expected at the table.

For instance, if a child wants to get up and play immediately after sitting down, but comes back to their plate to grab bites of food, you can say something like, "When you get down out of your chair, it tells me that you're finished eating. Are you done eating?"

From here, you can establish mealtime rules for your household. It can help to use tools like an hourglass timer to help your child visualize the 10 minutes that they are expected to sit at the table to eat before they can go play.

Kids might not want to be at the table because they are struggling with another aspect of eating, such as sensory overload or anxiety.

If you think your child might have a sensory or developmental reason for struggling to sit still during mealtimes, talk to your pediatrician. They can provide a referral to specialists like a dietitian and an occupational or speech therapist.

2. Refusing to Eat What’s Served

It's frustrating when a child refuses to eat what you prepare for dinner. An important, but also difficult, step is to not to take this as a personal attack on your parenting or culinary skills.

Try to view the meal from your child's perspective. This will help you address aspects of a particular dish that you might be able to adjust to make it more enjoyable for everyone at the table.

It can also help to involve your child in other aspects of the meal, such as cooking or serving. For example, when you go to the grocery store, let your child pick a favorite fruit or vegetable to add to the meal. For an older child, you can offer to let them be more involved in the process of planning meals.

In addition, serve meals family-style whenever possible. This method allows kids to plate their own food or they can tell an adult how much of each food they would like. Either way, having a choice gives a child a sense of ownership over the meal.

Family-style serving also allows a child to skip something they do not enjoy, while still eating plenty from the rest of the meal's offerings.

Try to include at least one food you know that your child enjoys to encourage them to take part in the meal. Having one familiar food on the table can help a child feel more comfortable trying new foods or giving a second chance to foods they didn't like the first time around.

Here's a tip that might sound odd, but can be extremely helpful: serve dessert with the meal. If a child is preoccupied with the idea of getting dessert after a meal, they might refuse to eat or eat less of the meal in front of them.

When a portion of the dessert food is served alongside the main course, a child can trust that they will be allowed to have their treat—along with other food that is part of the meal.

Dessert can be pre-portioned onto a child's plate before it arrives at the table. Then, they can serve themselves the other foods that are part of the meal.

Ellyn Satter is an expert in fostering positive relationships with food, eating, emotions, and family around the dinner table. Her words of wisdom? "Parents provide, kids decide."

A rule of thumb for family meals? You select the food and set the mealtimes, then your kids choose what and how much they eat at each meal.

If your child is still struggling at meals, remember to ask your doctor about ruling out any sensory or motor skill difficulties. Professionals can give advice and provide you with strategies that will make meals more comfortable and enjoyable for everyone at the table.

3. Asking for Snacks All Day

If a child tends to not eat much at meals but asks for frequent snacks throughout the day, try setting an eating schedule.

Having a daily schedule for meals and snacks helps kids learn to listen to and respect hunger and fullness cues.

In general, three meals and two or three snacks is the standard for younger kids, while older kids will likely do well with three meals and one or two snacks.

Having relatively standardized times for eating has several benefits, including:

  • Providing kids with the chance to practice listening to hunger and satiation cues
  • Kids learn to trust that they will be able to eat again if they don't want or aren't hungry for what is being served at a specific time
  • Helps kids have a more robust appetite at mealtimes

Ultimately, you'll want to figure out what works best for your household when setting a schedule.

Like all things related to feeding kids, remember to look at the situation through their eyes. Staying open and flexible is important, especially as kids are growing.

For instance, a child going through a growth spurt or who plays sports might need an extra snack, while a child who is sick might have less of an appetite.

4. Fixating on Food

Start by asking yourself who defines "too much" or "fixation" when it comes to a child's feelings about food. Think about where this definition came from in your life (for example, diet culture that tells us that our focus should be on eating less).

Before you can address a potential struggle in your kids, check yourself for internal bias. As a parent, your relationships with food, eating, and dieting can impact your children.

It can be uncomfortable, even painful, to examine these truths, but it's part of raising kids who have a confident, healthy, sustainable relationship with food and eating.

If your child has a potentially unhealthy focus on food, there are a few things you can do to support them in moving beyond the mindset.

Firstly, do not label a child as "obsessed," "fixated," or "addicted" to food. Labels can make a child feel as though this is what defines them, that it's unchangeable, or that they aren't valued without playing this role.

Avoid using food as a reward or punishment.

It's also key that you are not overly controlling your child's food choices. Feeling restricted around food tends to create more fixation. To avoid creating this mindset, try occasionally offering foods that might otherwise be deemed "dessert" or "treat" foods alongside meals and snacks.

Establishing a predictable routine can also help. Eating schedules reinforce that a child will be able to eat when they are hungry. This reassurance helps kids focus on things other than food between snacks and meals.

Lastly, having conversations with your child will give you a better understanding of how the situation feels to them. These chats might even reveal possible strategies for addressing the issue that you had not considered.

Asking a child questions like, "It seems like you are still hungry. What does that feel like right now?" or asking kids if they are enjoying their meals and snacks (and what that enjoyment feels like or means to them) can open up a dialogue and give you insight.

Keep in mind that different kids have different relationships with food and will not respond in the same way to the same strategies.

Kids also have different reasons for becoming preoccupied with food, which you'll need to carefully identify and address. In some cases, working with a professional might be necessary to find the source of a child's preoccupation, anxiety, or worry.

Working with a pediatric registered dietitian to get specialized help (and to rule out any underlying conditions) is critical. A specialist can also help determine whether a child's focus on food is within normal limits or something that needs treatment.

5. Eating Too Much

As with other problems your child might have around food, it's important to look at your own relationship with food before you define "overeating."

Diet culture touts that feeling full is a bad thing, and that joy and excitement around food (and the enjoyment of eating) are dangerous. This is not true for adults or kids.

The language we use when we talk about food and eating is powerful. Avoid associating eating (be it amounts or specific foods) with body size or appearance. Likewise, avoid labeling foods as being "Good" or "Bad."

Focus on helping your child tune in and respond to their body's cues in a way that makes them feel good regardless of the food they are eating.

Again, eating plans and schedules are a great way to encourage children to hear and respond to hunger cues. Eating regularly throughout the day can prevent kids from becoming overly hungry, which in turn allows them to hear their fullness cues before they've become uncomfortably full.

Beyond everyday eating, this is also true for special events. For example, if your child tends to eat past the point of comfort when they are at parties or other social events, ensuring they've had a satisfying meal or snack ahead of time means they won't arrive overly hungry.

Keep in mind that when certain foods are restricted at home, kids might be tempted to eat as much as they can when they encounter the food elsewhere because they know they won't see it again for a while.

You can address this tendency by giving your child these foods as part of a meal or snack on occasion. That way, your child will not feel a sense of scarcity.

Avoid setting a restrictive tone around food. Restriction can lead to a fixation on food and overeating when that food is available.

One of the best ways to help your child develop a healthy and positive relationship with food and eating is to help them think about what they eat without overthinking.

Mindful eating strategies can help everyone at the table find greater satisfaction with meals and snacks. You can start by exploring how each of your five senses relates to the food you're eating at the family table.

Talk about how the food looks and smells. Is it sizzling? What's the texture like? How does it look and taste? When your child serves themselves, it gives them the chance to arrange their plate in the way they find most visually appealing. Discuss how everyone prefers to compose their plate.

Another important component of your child's relationship to food is helping them build a toolbox of strategies for coping with boredom, sadness, and stress in a healthy way. If they have these strategies available, they'll be less likely to turn to food.

Opting for food as a way to deal with emotions should never be punished. Food is a tool that they can have in their toolbox, but the goal is that it's not the only tool they have.

You can help by giving them a safe and supportive environment in which to practice using all their coping tools.

Lastly, have regular conversations as a family about food and eating. If you notice that your child is struggling, ask them about it in a non-judgmental way.

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