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 mastering mealtime and get your children to eat all of their broccoli, or 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, help yourself with mastering mealtime with 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. Too much snacking robs the proper meals of full appreciation and participation. Simply put, if a child is truly hungry, they’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. 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

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. Like an avocado-loathing child who loves guacamole, for example. On its own, the avocado is the worst thing they might 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.

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. 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 other distractions. Like 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.

Mastering mealtime isn’t easy, and 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!