Skip to content

Mealtime Difficulties

October 25, 2010
Children and Teens
“Staff Tips and Strategies” and a drawing of a family in green

JSSA Child and Family Staff

Q: My child is 3 years old, and we usually have a problem at dinner. He doesn’t want to eat what my husband and I eat, and I don’t know what to do. He begins to scream and cry and is often sent from the table. We need a better way to cope, or we will dread dinner every night.

A: Many benefits have been found to come from eating regular family meals, including greater consumption of fruits and vegetables and greater resiliency in children in adolescence and beyond. So even now at this early stage, it’s wise to start developing good habits.

Picky eating and erratic food choices are common among toddlers. You may notice, for instance, that sometimes your child wants to eat the same foods over and over. Then suddenly one day he may lose all interest in them. As you strive for a balanced diet for your child, be flexible in how you offer new foods. Introducing a new food along with a favorite may be a good method. In a meal that includes a new food for your child, also serve at least one item you know he will eat.

A structure to mealtimes can also be an important way to show your child what is expected in the family when you all sit down to eat together. Create structure by:

  • Serving meals on a routine schedule each day, including weekends.
  • Having your child help set the table ahead of time or bring foods out of the refrigerator for you to prepare. This may help him focus better on eating.
  • Telling your child 10-15 minutes before a meal that it will soon be time to eat so that he can settle down, disengage from playing, and be ready to wash his hands before taking his place at the table. Without this brief transition, children’s minds still may be on other activities, and their excitement can distract them from eating.
  • Being realistic about how long your child can sit at the table.
  • Making mealtime a pleasant family time when you all share stories of what happened during the day, rather than emphasizing how many peas or bites of chicken your child consumes.

This structure promotes healthy eating and good habits while modeling for your child the valuable social aspects of a family meal.

As you begin to establish healthy patterns around meals, try not to influence your child’s eating habits by making dessert a reward for eating. Likewise, try to avoid leveling threats or imposing punishments for not eating. Keep the focus of eating on satisfying natural hunger, not on meeting parents’ expectations. You may have to accept your child’s refusal if his behavior is designed to get attention. In that case, showing that you are upset may cause the behavior to continue. And to curb attention-seeking behavior at dinner, be sure your son gets plenty of attention from both parents for fun things like playing or reading stories when you are not caught up in preparing or eating meals.

Another reason your child may not want his dinner is that he may not have a big enough appetite for it, especially if he has had a snack close to mealtime. However, even without a snack before dinner, your child may already be taking in enough food and simply may not be hungry when you and your husband are.

As long as your son is growing and has energy, you can be sure he is getting adequate nutrition. If doesn’t eat during mealtime, you may offer him a nutritious snack a few hours later. If he doesn’t want that, he will usually eat at the next meal.

JSSA helps parents, children and families of all ages cope with diverse transitions and challenges.