Mastering Mealtime With Young Children

Experts agree that family mealtimes are extremely valuable to a child’s development, both emotionally and physically, but what about making them more peaceful? Unfortunately for parents everywhere, there’s no one answer to get your children to eat all of their broccoli, nor to stop spilling their milk and dropping their utensils. Mealtimes are chaotic with little ones! There is no cure-all to this magical yet menacing time of day, but with the following guidelines, perhaps dinner time will run a bit smoother.

1. For Children, Timing is Everything

Children thrive in structured environments for all parts of their day, including meals and snacks. To avoid becoming a kitchen slave to your little ones, decide on set times for each meal and snack and stick to it! If your child is old enough to read a clock, you can have him check the time whenever you hear the dreaded, “I’m hungryyy!” between meals. Having set meal and snack times teaches your children to anticipate and appreciate food, and also increases their openness to new or less enjoyed foods. When my children are hungry, they gobble up fresh vegetables, but if they’ve just had a snack an hour previously, they’ll stubbornly refuse the healthy option. Why? Because they’re not hungry enough to eat something they don’t fancy, thanks to snacks on demand. Too much snacking robs the proper meals of full appreciation and participation. Simply put, If a child is truly hungry, she’ll eat.

For children over age two, here is a sample schedule:

Breakfast – 7:30am
Snack – 10:00am
Lunch – 12:30pm
Snack – 3:00pm
Dinner – 5:30pm

2. Offer the Best

When kids arrive at the table hungry, fill them up with the best you can afford and find in season. Kids love plain, starchy, carbs, so don’t begin with those! Potatoes, rice and pasta will be welcomed by most kids any time, so start with foods your kids find more of a challenge. We start every dinner with a leafy salad or vegetable side, and once those are finished we bring on the meat and carbs, as our children are happy to fill up on those options but often reject a salad. A friend of mine’s son seemed to hate all meats, so she started offering cubed chicken or pork at the beginning of each meal when her son was hungry and eager. He wasn’t eschewing meat for long. Try to provide your children with a variety of foods at each meal, always saving their favourite foods for last and see how their palate expands.

3. Respect your child’s Tastes

I consider myself an adventurous eater, but even I still have a few foods I really dislike, so I try to extend the same allowances for my children. It’s wise to offer your child the same food many times before you allow them to qualify it as a food they “don’t like”, and even then, try introducing it prepared in other ways. Our avocado-loathing daughter loves guacamole, for example. On its own the avocado is the worst thing she could imagine, but look what a bit of salt, lime, and cilantro can achieve! Allow your child to have a short list (no more than three articles) of foods they truly don’t like, and respect their list. The trick is that they cannot change items on their list mid-meal, and if they add something to their list, something must come off! This way you’re respecting their individual tastes while not catering to a picky eater. I can happily avoid mushrooms, salmon, and acorn squash for my son because he eats literally anything else you put in front of him. He feels heard and respected, and I know he won’t put up a fight with 99% of meals I serve.

4. Value Mealtime with your child

In our fast paced lives, there is something very special about stopping everything and giving our full attention to one thing, or one group of people. If we can treat meals this way, our children will flourish. Life is busy, but if mealtimes are undervalued, nutrition is often sacrificed and those points of connection from parent to child are lost. Sharing three meals a day together is rare for most families, but try to share at least one per day if possible. On the evenings that my husband works late, breakfast is our family meal that we enjoy together. During busy weeks, the weekend is a two day feast. If you’re home during the day, perhaps your school aged children could come home for lunch.

Find time to break bread with your children, and when you do ensure to eliminate all other distractions. We have a “No Toys At The Table” rule which includes parent’s phones just as it does books, gadgets, and homework. If the phone rings during dinner, trust that they’ll leave a message, and jump to ask your children questions instead to reply to message alerts.

So long as children are at the table a degree of chaos will be there too, but with a bit of planning, regularity, and intention of our part, family mealtimes can be a force for stability and nourishment for the body and soul. Bon Appetit!

‌‌‌‌‌‌About Emily

Emily MorriceEmily is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of three little ones. When she’s not traveling the world with her family, Montreal is home, where you can find her exploring the local markets, making a mess in her kitchen, and brewing a cup of tea. Find her on Instagram (@emmorrice) and check out her lifestyle blog, Our Nest In The City, where she documents it all.