Set Up for Success: Developing a Mealtime Routine

tags: Pediatric Feeding Disorders Program

Over the past several months, we’ve shared some basic advice for increasing your child’s variety at home and school. If your child generally enjoys mealtime, you may have already begun trying some of these strategies. But for children who don’t enjoy time at the table, tend to come and go, or engage in disruptive behaviors during meals, we often find it helpful to establish a consistent mealtime routine before trying to make any dietary changes. In this entry, behavioral feeding specialist Liz Masler offers us a few tips for developing a more structured meal.

Consistency is Key

In general, it’s ideal if mealtimes look and feel similar from day to day. For meals at home, this often means eating around the same time, at the same place, and with the same expectations. These will become your “mealtime rules.” For example, on weeknights, dinner starts around 6:30 p.m. and the kids are expected remain at the table, try one bite of every item on their plate, and finish the main course. If this scenario sounds far-fetched, start with one change per week and continue making small adjustments until you have established a predictable structure. You can also make post-meal activities, such as eating dessert or playing on the tablet, available only when the rules are followed. Explain the rules to your children in advance and remind them of the consequences (good and bad) for following or breaking the rules (“You can have a scoop of ice cream tonight if you stay at the table during dinner”). If you’re currently eating all meals on the couch, you might start presenting meals at the table only two nights per week to begin with. Over time, you can gradually increase expectations as your child becomes familiar with your current routine.

Transitioning to the Table

Many parents tell us  their child is already upset when the meal begins, regardless of what’s on the plate. The culprit for these sour starts is often the transition from a highly preferred activity, such as watching TV or playing with toys, to a less preferred activity—sitting at the table. One solution is to begin this transition well before the beginning of the meal. For example, try turning the TV off 10 minutes before the meal starts and reminding the kids that they can do quiet activities, like reading books or doing puzzles, until dinner time. In this case, a child who becomes upset when the TV or toy goes away will have a few minutes to calm down before it’s time to eat. If you normally watch TV during meals or allow your child to have a preferred item at the table, make sure to clarify that access to these items is contingent upon staying at the table and consider fading out that access over time.

Stay Positive

The good news:we have seen children of all ages adapt well to changes in the family’s mealtime routines. The bad news:there is no magic wand you can wave to make these changes happen overnight. We often hear mealtime changes weren’t a home run on day one, but took some creativity and trial-and-error over the course of a few weeks to become “the new normal.”  Your child might resist changes initially by attempting to negotiate the rules, crying, or outright refusing to comply. If you consistently follow through with the outlined consequences, these behaviors should subside within a week or two. On the other hand, if you feel like tightening the reigns is causing more trouble than it’s worth, take a step back and see if there is a smaller change you can make first. A series of small changes can be easier to implement consistently than a totally new game plan that’s hard for everyone to stick to.

Instead of...

  • Starting from a “clean slate” and introducing a new mealtime routine all at once…
  • Allowing your child to engage in highly preferred activities before meals…
  • Warning your child about possible consequences after problem behavior has occurred…

Try to...

  • Change only one aspect of the meal at time, and introduce a new change only when the previous change has become a habit.
  • Limit your child to quiet, moderately preferred activities for at least 10 minutes before the meal begins.
  • State your expectations at the beginning of the meal and explain what will happen if your child follows the rules (e.g., get a bedtime story).