It’s the same every evening: I’m in the final minutes of preparing supper, and my younger child, who will be 4 this month, rushes in. “I need a snack, now. I’m really, really, really, really hungry!” Distracted, I shove a banana his way, only to smack myself on the head 15 minutes later when I realize he’s not eating because that little piece of fruit satisfied his hunger. He pokes at his food or chatters until his dad and I end up feeding him like a baby. I know! This is a bad idea! It infantilizes him and disrupts the family meal. But if he doesn’t eat, he’ll wail that he’s hungry half an hour after bedtime.
I’m not alone. Richard Alley, who writes about parenting his four kids in “Because I Said So,” a Commercial Appeal column, told me, “I have a dining room full of that mess every night.” So does Home Grown for Baby designer Laura Barrett, who says her daughter Elinor eats so slowly Laura can “empty the dishwasher, start a load of laundry and shower in the time it takes her to finish a bowl of cereal.” Dawdlers can morph into dashers, too. Katie Cruce Hathcock, mom of 3-year-old Stella, groaned about her daughter’s antics. “Stella will get up and run around between every, single bite if we let her. It’s like her chair is an ejector seat.”
Mom Andria Brown has developed "a finely honed method of small portions." If there's too much on her son's plate, he gets overwhelmed.
In my family at least, the “mess” clearly stems from a struggle for control and parental attention. But we’re baffled about how to re-program this dynamic. Why does so much craziness center around food? How can I restore sanity to the family dinner table?
Adapt To A Regular Meal Schedule
Preschoolers do seem to have extra difficulty settling down for a meal. For insight, I turned to Natalie Williams, a University of Memphis child clinical psychologist who does research on childhood obesity. She pointed out that during the first few years of a child’s life, feeding is central to the parent’s job. Mom and Dad worry that baby’s not getting enough, but in fact most babies and small children will eat what they need. Pushing them to eat more can be counterproductive. Moreover, toddlers between 11 and 36 months of age are developing a sense of autonomy distinct from their parents, which is why dinner table pushback starts at this time.
However, she agrees that kids need to adapt to a regular schedule of three meals and two snack times. Faced with a pre-dinner muncher like mine, she suggested providing a light snack at least an hour before supper but nothing later. That way, he’ll arrive at the table ready to eat and less likely to linger. She reminded me, too, that expecting a preschooler to sit still at the table for longer than 20 minutes is unrealistic. That explains why my occasional, desperate strategy of making him stay at the table till he’s eaten a certain amount always backfires.
Set Realistic Expectations
Williams also referred me to the work of Ellyn Satter, a consultant and author of several books on feeding kids. Satter has a terrifically simple formulation for the division of responsibility around eating. Parents decide what, where, and when kids eat; kids decide whether and how much. Letting go of the “whether” might be hard, especially when I suspect I’ll be hearing plaintive cries of hunger from the bedroom as 8:45 rolls around. But if this means we can relax during supper, though, so be it. We’ve got lots of bananas.
It also helps not to overload kids’ plates. Writer, jewelry designer, and mother of two Andria Brown has developed “a finely honed method of small portions.” If there’s too much on her son’s plate, he gets overwhelmed. But Brown has learned to serve enough so she “can negotiate down and still have him eat a reasonable amount.”
I’ve also been giving some thought to presentation. I’m not artistic, so making food look like smiley faces or motorcycles is out. But I’ve noticed that my kids get frustrated with food that’s hard to eat. Long after my kids mastered the pincer grasp and could hold a spoon, they still wrestled with the finer points of using a knife and fork. Food that falls apart, wiggles away, or dribbles drives them nuts. So as much as we love tacos, they’re on hold for a while in favor of quesadillas. Spaghetti has made way for bow-ties and elbows. Burgers are messy, but kids can spear small meatballs and pop them into their mouths with ease. Same with tasty roasted vegetables like green beans, sweet potato spears, or broccoli.
And did I mention bananas?
5 Tips To Happy Meals
• Provide healthy snacks at predictable times, but not too close to dinner.
• Serve healthy foods low in appetite- revving simple carbs.
• Make food easy for young ones to eat on their own.
• Keep portions kid-sized so they don’t feel overwhelmed.
• Relax. Children eat what they need, especially if you lighten up.