4 Simple Rules to Manage Mealtime Mayhem

After our article about the importance of mealtime , quite a few parents asked for more help with creating a calm, connective atmosphere at the table. Because Lynne is extensively trained*, and has worked successfully with hundreds of families regarding this issue, we decided to share her four simple rules for pleasant mealtimes:

1. Parents serve healthy food.

The parent’s job is to prepare healthy food for the kids, and even to involve the kids in preparing it. Include at least one food in the meal that you know your kids will eat, and persevere at also offering and enjoying a variety of healthy food.

2. Kids decide what they eat.  

While parents are responsible for what is served, children are responsible for what they eat. The quickest way to end up with picky eaters and power struggles is to regulate what your kids eat. Let them choose what and even if to eat.

3. Respect the cook.

If a child complains, “This is yucky,” you can slide his plate out of reach for a break and gently say “You can eat or not eat whatever you want, but it’s important to respect the person that worked hard to fix our meal. Your plate will take a little break, and in a minute you can ask for it back if you are ready to eat what you want without complaining.” Persistent complainers can help fix the next few meals – a helpful, skill-building consequence.

4. Respect others at the table.

Have a child-friendly discussion about what it means to be respectful at mealtime and why it’s important. The answers (and specific rules you develop) will vary greatly based on how each person feels respected.

Implementing the Rules:

  • Establish a simple, low-key consequence for disruptive behavior. (i.e. a 1-2 minute break in a chair facing away from the family.) Welcome a child warmly back from a time-out to reset the tone of the table interaction.
  • Review the rules as soon as you’ve prayed for the food. Then, before there is an opportunity for misbehavior, notice any helpful behavior and state its benefit, i.e. If you have a rule about loudness, “Jaden, you are using your inside voice at the table and that makes it easy to hear everyone well.”
  • Tips for older kids: You might not develop specific rules/consequences, but you can still have a discussion about what your family wants mealtimes to be like. Then ask each person the question, “How do I sometimes contribute to stress at the table, and what would I like to do differently?” You answer the question first, and then lead the way for your kids by working hard to change that habit you identified. Even if your kids mumble “I dunno” when it’s their turn to answer the question, your example will speak volumes.
  • Persevere; don’t expect perfection. Chaos happens, but make sure that in your home — grace trumps chaos!

* There are some kids whose food aversions are very high, and linked to other nervous system issues. Consult your pediatrician for extreme cases.

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