I Like To Eat Treats

Eating as a family and practicing good nutrition and table manners make it easier for young children to learn about and enjoy healthy foods. Setting eating rules and involving your child in food preparation can help him develop healthier eating habits.

Some children like a wide variety of foods, have good appetites, and stay seated at the table long enough to eat a good meal or snack. Many don’t. As in other aspects of their life, children are playful, happy little scientists experimenting with their world. Food to them can be an interesting and potentially fun kind of crafts project but can also test parents’ limits and patience.

Young children don’t know that there are rules about eating until you teach them. If young children had a choice, many would prefer to leave the table and come back and get more when they wanted to, though not necessarily because they were hungry. They’d walk around the house eating and drinking as they go. Many would disrupt the meal by playing with their food or climbing on our laps to eat from our plates. Children request other food, then change their minds and pick yet a different food. Because all this is natural for young children, there are a lot of table rules to teach.

Young children don’t learn eating behavior or nutrition on their own. Parents need to set eating rules at home that are similar to those expected in the community, such as at school, in restaurants, and in other homes. Because young children’s preferred eating behavior usually is not acceptable, they require lots of mealtime training. It’s easier to teach expectations to a child who is hungry at mealtimes and is not given a lot of choice about what to eat. Parents need to teach their children to stay at the table, eat with utensils, say please and thank you, and not push food off their plates, spill things, throw or drop food, or do “chemistry experiments” with their food. We need to help our children learn to enjoy the meal and conversation enough that mealtimes are not filled with their out-of-bounds behavior and/or our threats and consequences.

Most parents have to decide on a reasonable length of time for children to stay at the table, especially for children who always finish eating before the rest of the family. Younger preschoolers can usually stay seated for 10 minutes and older preschoolers and kindergartners for 20 minutes. However, you should look for signs that your child has had enough to eat. That’s when children become bored and when most behavior problems begin. Clear rules, enforced consistently, and immediate consequences help children know what’s expected at meals. Once they have learned the rules, most mealtimes can go quite well.

These are reasonable goals. The rest of Section Two explains how to work toward them. When you do, the family will find mealtimes more satisfying and less stressful, curbing both your emotional outbursts and your child’s.

Perfecting Parenting Press 2015