When we first decided to create a feeding blog for parents, it was hard to decide where to start. Countless variables influence a child’s eating habits, but it really only takes a problem in one of these areas to turn a relaxing family meal into a catastrophe.
Although many children naturally develop the same mealtime practices as their parents, some have their own ideas about what happens at the dinner table. Maybe your child would rather play with food than eat it, and that early breakfast starts feeling like a late-morning brunch by the time the meal ends. Maybe he or she wilts like a flower (or negotiates like a lawyer) at the sight of fruits or vegetables. Or maybe you just wish you could make one meal for the whole family.
If any of these scenarios sounds familiar, this blog is for you. Each month, we’ll touch on a topic that relates to your child’s meals, from picky eating and problem behavior to texture and table manners.
So what does a “normal” meal look like for children? The truth is that it’s a little bit different for every family. In one large survey, parents reported an average meal length of 25 minutes (although meals may last a few minutes longer for children who require more assistance from caregivers), and about half of those responding said their child engaged in at least one problematic behavior at mealtimes.
For your typical eater, remaining at the table throughout the meal can be the biggest challenge—about one in five children get up from the table during a meal. If your child often snacks throughout the day, he or she may not be hungry at mealtimes, and may not view the table as the place to eat. Consider limiting snacks to certain times and requiring your child to eat them at the table. For children who struggle to stay at the table, consider starting with the smaller goal of remaining at the table for five or 10 minutes before aiming for a longer period of time.
With regard to variety, most children—almost 90 percent—regularly eat vegetables and are willing to try new foods. However, about one in seven children whine or cry during meals, so it’s hard to blame parents for offering a child’s preferred foods when they are hoping for a more peaceful family experience. If your child becomes upset when told to eat certain foods, it is often helpful, initially, to keep the demand small. Three bites of peas certainly seems less daunting than a full serving, and over time, your child may become more accustomed to the tastes and textures of less-preferred foods.
If you could use a little bit of guidance at mealtimes, follow along as we share behavioral, nutritional and medical knowledge and advice from our interdisciplinary feeding team at Kennedy Krieger Institute. For families who may need more assistance from the professionals, staff members from our intake line (443-923-9400) can help you schedule an evaluation.
W. Crist and A. Napier-Phillips, “Mealtime behaviors of young children: A comparison of normative and clinical data,” Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 22, no. 5 (2001): 279-286.