Whether it’s flicking peas at siblings, staging a dramatic hunger strike or dumping handfuls of spaghetti onto the floor, mealtimes present endless opportunities for kids to misbehave. For parents, this can be one of the most challenging (and messy) situations inside the home.
Having tools and strategies to manage behavior at mealtimes can help you bring some peace to the dining table (and reduce pea flicking incidents). Keep the focus on rewarding positive behavior to make meals fun and engaging for your kids.
Mealtimes are like a magnet for misbehavior. It’s prime tantrum time for toddlers. Sibling spats are in full swing. Parents are distracted with food preparation and trying to sneak a few mouthfuls between child management duties. Some days getting everyone to sit still for a few minutes and put some food in their mouths can seem impossible.
Dinnertime in particular is smack bang during ‘witching hour’ – you know, that time of the day the kids seem to lose it altogether. Kids are often tired by dinnertime, which is a key trigger for misbehavior. Other factors that may contribute to mealtime antics include anxiety or stress, restlessness (aka inability to sit still for five minutes) or boredom.
Often your kids just want your attention and pressing your buttons (by spilling cereal on the floor, for example) may be the fastest, most effective way to do this.
There’s nothing more frustrating than prepping and cooking a meal, setting the table, seating everyone in their respective chairs, dishing up the food and then having your kid refuse to take a single bite. But the effort you went to! Not to mention the disappointment of wasting food and concern that your child will get hungry later on or isn’t eating enough.
Refusing food could be a sneaky way to get your attention, or it could be a tactic for your child to get the sort of food they want (chicken nuggets). Try to avoid offering them their own separate meals or they’ll come to expect this at every mealtime. Instead, continue to offer a range of different food, as the more food they try the less scary new food will be.
Other reasons your child won’t eat could include:
Kids might eat lots one day, then barely anything the next so try not to stress too much about the occasional dinner dodge. If you’re worried that your child is losing weight or having negative thoughts about their body image, check in with a pediatrician for advice. And if you’re worried about food wastage serve smaller portions to begin with.
As much as meals are about getting good food into your children, they’re also about having fun together and connecting as a family. Take the opportunity to turn the TV off, minimize other distractions and focus on making this quality time for you and your kids.
Try some of these ideas for keeping mealtimes fun in your house.
Giving children tasks can help them feel important and useful at mealtimes. You could ask them to get ingredients out of the pantry or to set the table. Older kids can help by peeling vegetables or doing other food prep activities. Make sure you offer emotional, excited praise when kids help out. (“Wow! You are the best potato-peeler I’ve ever seen!”)
Lots of families use mealtimes to chat and have fun. Try to distract your kids with activities while they eat. You could ask about their day, suggest that they choose a topic of conversation, play ‘I Spy’ or introduce other fun games to keep them at the table.
Introducing unfamiliar foods to kids can be painful (refer to mealtime troubleshooting below.) You could try to make it fun by introducing one new food each day. Encourage your child to feel it in their hands, smell it, describe what it looks like and (if they’re up to the challenge) taste it. This not only helps them get familiar with more foods, but keeps mealtime interesting and full of new experiences.
When you have guests over or your family is dining out, your kids’ misbehavior will probably shine its brightest – much to your horror. Drill good table manners into your children at home so you can apply the rules in any scenario.
Talk to your children about what sort of behavior is expected at the dining table. You could even put a list of rules on the wall, such as:
Praise and reward your kids when they follow the rules – particularly when they do it out of the home.
Try not to use food as a punishment or a reward. You may have grown up being told you had to sit at the table until you finished everything on your plate, or that you’d only get your dessert if you had ‘X more mouthfuls’. These habits can be hard to break.
The goal shouldn’t be to eat everything on the plate but to develop a healthy relationship with food. Using food as punishment (i.e. by responding to misbehavior with, “Sit down and eat your dinner!”) could build a negative association with eating. Similarly, using food as a reward (“You can have dessert if you finish your broccoli”) could encourage future comfort eating or overeating.
Teach your kids about the importance of healthy eating by:
The discussion of body image often comes into play when developing healthy eating habits. Encourage your kids to celebrate their bodies for what they can do, rather than what they look like.
For example, explain that eating good food will help your kids stay healthy and strong rather than staying slim. Lead by example when it comes to body image. Avoid negative comments about your own appearance and maintain healthy eating habits yourself.
If mealtimes are a challenge for your child’s behavior, approach them strategically with this method:
Here are some suggestions for dealing with specific mealtime problems.
Picky eating may be a way of getting attention. It’s common for kids to get fussy with food, particularly as they become more independent. Try not to force feed, bribe or threaten picky eaters. The less you react to this behavior, the less they'll do it to get your attention. Remember to continue introducing a range of different foods to children, so they become familiar with new foods and more likely to try them.
If kids are overtired or overstimulated at dinner time, chances are a tantrum will be on the cards. If this becomes a regular occurrence, see if a change to your routine helps. For example, you might feed your toddler earlier on when they’re not quite as tired. Turn the television off to reduce noise, and try to distract kids with games or activities before they hit meltdown stage. It can be so rewarding to eat together as a family and a great chance for kids to learn by watching you. That’s why experts say you should avoid having separate kids and parents mealtimes.
Stubborn vegetable refusal is nothing new. But don’t give up on serving veggies. Set a good example by eating them yourself (making yummy noises can’t hurt too), praise your child when they do eat vegetables, and keep offering them even if they’re often not touched. Serving a variety of different vegetables in different shapes and formats can keep things interesting, encouraging your child to give them a try.
You can always go down the route of ‘vegetable disguise’ and find clever ways to hide vegetables in food (grated carrots and zucchinis in pasta sauce is a winner). Hiding vegetables is actually a key part of the parenthood initiation process.
As already mentioned, unfamiliar foods can be stressful for kids. They may need to see something on their plate 10 to 15 times before they taste it. Start with a small serving and tell your child to give it a try if they want. You can also serve new foods in interesting ways to entice kids to try them. For example, serve a small amount with a toothpick for a fun new experience.
Mealtimes can be messy. And knowing that you have to clean up that mess can be stressful – we hear you.
Older kids should know how to use a knife and fork and keep their food on their plates, but don’t expect too much from babies and toddlers. You can try to minimize clean up by putting plastic or newspaper under their chair to catch dropped food. If your child intentionally throws food, use discipline methods to discourage the behavior. And always remember to reward and praise clean eating.
Mealtimes with kids can be full of noise, stress and mess. But as with most things (like managing behavior) it’s best to focus on the positives. Try to relax and enjoy your awesome kids. By surrendering to the inevitable chaos and mess, you’ll probably find that some of your best family memories are created around the dinner table. Pea fights and all.
Learn how to master kick-ass parenting strategies by getting started with Family Man. It’s an interactive parenting video series that's expert-backed and funded by Movember.
If research is your thing take a closer look at the evidence behind Family Man.
Or learn more before diving in.