Have you ever wished for a magical food fairy to swoop down and wave her wand around your dinner table, effectively ending the meal-time meltdowns that seem to occur every time you sit down to eat with your kids? I'm raising my own hand here because this has definitely been a dream of mine since my kids were old enough to chew. Toddler tantrums, preschool pickiness, and elementary "ewws" have all happened in my home and that magical food fairy has never shown up — until now. Avoiding dinner time battles is easy with this one trick from a dietitian, and you're going to wish you had heard this advice the moment you gave birth.
But, it's never too late to start developing good habits, so dietitian Hannah Dunahoe, MS, RD, LD, shares with Romper the one thing she believes will put an end to meal-time bickering for good.
"The one tip I have is to remember what our responsibilities are as parents and children at meal times," Dunahoe says. "Ellyn Satter has outlined a Division of Responsibility in Feeding to help us with this. Without that getting too technical, it essentially boils down to parents being responsible for the what, when, and where when eating, and children being responsible for the how much and whether to eat something or not."
Breaking that down even further, it is easy to see that these clearly defined roles during mealtimes can help ease the burden on parents by taking the responsibility of whether or not the child eats their food away from the parent and sharing it instead with the child. The main issue for parents then becomes wondering, "What happens if my kid refuses to eat?"
The good news is that kids typically will eat when they are hungry. Dunahoe recommends offering a mix of familiar and new foods during meal times to increase the chances that your child will eat at least something on their plate. "The practical application of this for the parent might involve planning and preparing meals for the week — not being a short order cook — incorporating both familiar and new foods on the child’s plate, as well as having structured meal and/or snack times, trying to avoid eating in-between scheduled meals/snacks (except for water)," Dunahoe says.
Another prime opportunity for meal time guidance comes from the where component. Parents can encourage children to be involved in meal times by "choosing the location where the child and family eats, promoting more family meals at the table versus eating in front of screens or on-the-go," says Dunahoe.
So, when you as a parent have covered all of their responsibilities, it is also imperative to guide your children to understand their role during meal times. "The practical application for the child would involve eating what their body needs to eat for that meal, becoming more familiar gradually to a variety of foods that their parents are eating, and learning to behave at meals," Dunahoe says.
But, don't worry if your child doesn't take to these responsibilities right away — Dunahoe says that it takes some trust on the part of a parent to make this division of responsibilities work. She says it is important that parents are "believing that your child will know how much they need to eat, realizing that they are navigating many new foods that most adults have already tried before (it can take 14 times of trying a new food before actually liking and eating it!), and being a good example for your child at meal times."
Obviously, not all situations can be fixed with a one-size-fits all solution. Understanding that meal time struggles are going to happen from time to time is half the battle. But if you can combat at least some of the negativity surrounding your time at the dinner table, you and your kids will be able to enjoy spending time with each other and the focus for your family can shift from complaints to camaraderie.