Here’s my 5 tips for avoiding mealtime meltdowns:
- Plan ahead for a hungry tummy. This may seem like the simplest answer, but it’s often overlooked. Kids need frequent refuelling as their stomachs are small (a.k.a. They need snacks!). Do this by creating a mealtime and snack structure that works for your family, and be sure to have snacks and meals ready before the hunger monster is awoken. Toddlers need two to three snacks per day, while older children may only need one afternoon snack each day.
Here’s my toddler’s current mealtime structure:
7:00 am — Breakfast
10:00 am — Morning Snack
12:00 pm — Lunch
3:00 pm — Afternoon Snack
6:00 pm — Supper
- Involve them in decision-making — but don’t become a short-order cook. While they learn to be independent, kids need to be taught that their parents have authority over them and really do have their best interest in mind. Some kids would just eat crackers and applesauce at every meal given the chance! Avoid making two separate meals to accommodate you and your kids. Instead, let kids be a part of the meal planning process, like having them choose the beverage or vegetable for supper. (This is how I got my little guy to like avocados and cucumbers again!) By asking a simple question like, “Would you like milk or water with your lunch?”, the child is required to give answer that isn’t just “No.”
- Resist the urge to praise healthy eating. I don’t know about your kids, but any time I applaud my boy for taking a bite of carrots or trying a new dish, it backfires with a “I don’t want this” and the food being deliberately thrown to the ground. This is followed by needed discipline and an unwanted mealtime meltdown. With older kids, praising them every time they do something they enjoy (like eating a certain food) may actually negatively affect their motivation for that activity. Here’s a great article I found by Parenting Science that investigates the effects of praise on kids.
- Implement distraction techniques. I’ll admit it, this is one strategy I use at almost every meal. Picture this scenario. As you place your child’s dinner plate in front of her, a few peas tragically stray from their mound, rolling straight into the mashed potatoes. You can see her brow begin to furrow, which means -- it’s the perfect time to strike up a conversation! “Aubrey, tell daddy about the squirrel we saw at the park today,” you say as you quickly separate the food items. Crisis averted! (Besides, there’s always another day to try reasoning with her on why it’s okay for the peas to touch the mashed potatoes.) Distraction techniques, like singing songs or telling funny stories, also work when you forget to plan ahead for hungry tummies (tip #1) while out running errands.
- Stop forcing them to finish their plates. Does this sound like you? "Billy, you need to finish your plate if you want to ________ (e.g. get dessert, leave the table, play outside, make mom happy, etc.)!" A few thoughts on this. First off, this creates an overall negative environment where the child feels like he has to eat every last bite for the parent to be pleased. Secondly, this practice overrides a child’s internal signals for hunger and fullness. Even more so, overeating may lead to other eating disorders later on life. So if your child says he’s full, trust him. Just make it a rule that all family members must wait patiently until the end of the meal to leave the table. And for those kids who say they are hungry for a snack fifteen minutes after mealtime? Stick to your guns and have them wait until the next snack or meal opportunity to eat.