Managing Mealtime with Children

Many behavioral problems develop at mealtime. First, establish simple rules for mealtime, reasonable for the child’s age, such as being seated while eating, not spitting out food, throwing food, etc.

Second, teach the child how to behave. He can’t be expected to do what he doesn’t know how to do.

Third, praise all appropriate behavior. Positive reinforcement is the easiest and most powerful way to get the child to do what you want.

Include the child in conversation. If the child feels ignored, he will misbehave just to get attention.

Don’t force the child to eat. Provide small portions he can eat and allow him to ask for more. Do not nag or get upset. At about 9 months old children are beginning to finger feed themselves. Allow them to finger feed even if they make a mess. While they are grappling with a small piece of food, you are often able to slip in a spoonful of your own to them.

Do not give snacks after meals as this teaches him that he doesn’t need to eat at mealtime. Don’t feel guilty if your child eats very little at mealtime. Allow only water until the next meal. If he doesn’t get the snacks, he’ll gradually realize that mealtime is eating time.

Allow a reasonable length of time for the meal, i.e., 30 minutes. If he dawdles and plays and doesn’t eat, simply declare the meal over, clear the table and explain that he can eat at the next mealtime. If the child misbehaves or breaks a rule, remove him from the table for time-out and have him practice correct behavior. If time-out is necessary twice in one meal, the meal is over.