• Melissa Genee, RD

Healthy Mealtime Boundaries

Are mealtimes with your children a constant struggle, often ending in screams or tears? Setting healthy and fair boundaries could be the answer to warding off any mealtime chaos. Young children thrive with structure and routine. However, feeding tends to be an area where parents are less structured and more inconsistent, resulting in frustration during mealtimes. It’s up to parents to set mealtime boundaries for your children and family. These boundaries must work for your family, and most importantly they must be consistently enforced. Remember, when it comes to mealtimes, parents are responsible for the what, where and when of mealtimes, while your children are in charge of whether or not and how much they eat. Below are some examples of mealtimes boundaries to try with your family.

Setting the Schedule

As a parent, it is your job to decide when mealtimes happen. Without a schedule, eating can become a free for all, with children grazing on food throughout all hours of the day. What happens when children are allowed to eat whenever they want? They will often refuse to eat at mealtimes (which you undoubtedly planned, shopped and prepared for) because they’re full from snacking. Set a schedule that works for your family. In general, kids should have 3 meals and 2-3 snacks each day. Snacks should be offered about 2-3 hours after and before meals (example: if breakfast is at 7am, a snack should be offered between 9-10am with lunch at noon). It is important to remind your children that eating only occurs during these times, and that any requests for food outside of these times will be turned down. Water can be offered between meals and snacks. If your child asks for a snack after a meal, gently remind them that the kitchen is closed and they will have another opportunity to eat at the next meal or snack. Over time, kids will learn how to regulate their appetite in a healthy manner.

Mealtime Warnings

Give your children a 5 or 10 minute warning before mealtimes. This will help them mentally and physically prepare for the fact that they will have to stop what they’re doing and come to the table soon. Even better, ask your children to help set the table before dinner. Young children can help fold napkins and carry age-appropriate cutlery to the table. Older children can bring plates, cups and condiments to the table.

Removing the Pressure to Eat

Have your children ever refused to come to the table (even with a warning), stating they’re not hungry? Some parents may force their children to come to the table and eat, while others may let their children continue to play. Sarah Remmer RD, an expert in children’s nutrition, shares one of the most transformative phrases she has found when it comes to feeding kids - “you don’t have to eat”. While it may sound counterintuitive, this phrase will take the pressure off your child to eat. What’s even better is that most children will eat once they’ve sat down with the rest of the family. If your child still refuses to eat even while at the table, set a time that they can be excused after. Remind them that mealtimes aren’t just about food - it is important to spend time visiting as a family.

Removing Distractions

Mealtimes should be reserved for feeding, exploring food and spending time with family. By removing toys, screens, and other distractions at the table, we can encourage mindful eating. Remember, this goes for parents as well - no phones or computers at the meal table.

Mealtime Manners

It is important to teach your children to be respectful at the table, whether or not they choose to eat. Here are some manners that you can try with your children:

  • Kids can use their fingers if it is a “finger food” and should use age-appropriate utensils when it’s not.

  • With new or previously rejected foods, it is okay for kids to explore these items (touching, smelling and tasting). It is not okay to throw food or make a mess on purpose.

  • Kids should sit nicely at the table and remain seated for the entire meal.

  • No rude comments to other family members or about the food.

  • Kids are expected to sit at the table for 10-15 minutes and can ask to be excused after that time.

Whichever mealtime manners you choose to set with your family, the most important thing is staying consistent with your expectations so kids learn what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

Setting and maintaining boundaries can be a struggle in itself, however, with patience and consistency, mealtimes can go from a chaotic battle time to a peaceful experience for the entire family.

The FLIP program will be doing a series of blog posts on picky eating. Keep an eye on our blog and subscribe to our newsletter for more information on how to nourish and grow a happy and healthy eater.

For more information on general picky eating tips, check out one of our previous blog posts “Picky Eating: What is it and how to deal with it” or Sarah Remmer’s E-Book “Turning the Tables on Picky Eating”

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