Mealtime issues factsheet

What are common mealtime problems?

Learning to sit at a table with others and use eating utensils is a difficult task for pre-school children and they may refuse to come to the table, leave the table during meals, complain about food, play with food, refuse to feed themselves, not do as they are told, eat very slowly, have tantrums and be fussy about what they eat.

Why do the problems occur?

Pre-school children often find it hard to sit in one place for long periods of time and can be easily distracted, They are more likely to become restless and disruptive if they find mealtimes too long or boring. Parents may have unrealistic expectations about what their children should eat and how much. If children eat a variety of foods, there is no need to insist they eat a food they do not like. Also, appetite can vary from day to day as all children have days when they are not as hungry as usual.

Problems can also occur because of the way family mealtimes are organised. Children find it hard to get into a good eating routine if they can eat whenever and wherever they want. Sometimes efforts to manage children’s misbehaviour make the problems worse.

How can I prevent problems at mealtimes?

It is important to set up a daily mealtime routine, ideally serving three main meals and a morning and afternoon snack at regular times each day. Serve your child an amount you know they can finish and explain to them that they will only be allowed food at these times. Decide on two or three simple rules for mealtimes and discuss them with your child. These could be: sit at the table until you are excused, eat with your spoon or fork and finish your mouthful before you speak. You can also talk to your child about rewards for following the rules and on the flip side, the consequences they will face if they misbehave, e.g. time-out.

How do I manage mealtimes?

When the meal is ready, seat your child at the table and remove any distractions. When your child is eating well and following the rules, praise them and encourage conversation between mouthfuls. If your child is displaying minor problem behaviour, e.g. playing with food, it is best to use planned ignorance for these problems. If their behavior is hard to ignore, e.g. throwing food, immediately tell them to stop what they are doing and what they should be doing instead. Praise them if they do as you ask. If your child does not do as they told back up your instruction with quiet time or time-out. When the meal is over tell your child what you liked about their behaviour during the meal. If they followed the rules, praise them and give them the reward you agreed on before the mean. If problems occurred, do not give the reward or any other food until the next regular mealtime.