Kid licks plateAre your buttons being pressed at dinner time?

When a child eats too much, too fast, too slowly or too selectively we can get stressed. No one wants dinner to be a battle and this is exactly what can happen when we are overly concerned about what is going on at mealtimes.

Parents who worry about children’s eating habits have a good intention

A lot of what is driving a parent’s reaction to mealtime problems come from a good place. Nutrition and good eating habits are really important. We all want our kids to be healthy. It’s ok to be a bit worried but when the worry gets too much it can cause a problem for our kids. Kids are super-sensitive to our reactions and we can unwittingly encourage behaviours which will cause battles over food.

Toddlers and food

The concerns over eating can start when children are toddlers. Toddlers ar well-known for food refusal. Their need to refuse foods is all about them becoming less dependent on us. Your toddler is moving from being a baby and totally dependent on you to being able to meet some of her own needs. This is a necessary part of her development. She will attempt to eat on her own and make a lot of mess. Toddlers can try weird food combinations. Combining marmite with pineapple is part of them learning how to become independent. Copying is one of the first ways children learn. Parents tell me that they notice how their kids eat better when they are eating with a group of people rather than on their own.

What’s the job of a parent when feeding a child?

Ellyn Satter, a childhood feeding expert, describes the role of parent and child in relation to feeding as the ”division of responsibility” in feeding. Here are the different roles:

  • It’s our job as the parent to be the provider of the food and to decide what, when and where the food is eaten.
  • It’s our child’s job to decide if and how much they eat.

It can take some pressure off parents to know that when we follow the routine of providing the food we can leave the rest to our child to decide if and how much they eat. Focus on the routine and make sure that a range of food options are regularly available to allow them to make some choices about if and how they eat.

What kind of eater do you have?

In the same family it’s pretty common to have one child who eats a wide range of foods and another who is much more restricted in their preferences. Watch over time to see which you have. For some parents having a child who is restricted in their choices is pretty hard to get past. We may have already labelled this child as the “picky” eater. It is possible to reframe this thinking and consider the good points. I like to call the child who has clear food preferences the selective eater. Think about how adults who are very selective about food choices get Michelin stars for their restaurants, whereas being choosy over food is seen as a negative in our children.

A note about what to eat

Parents with a selective eater will want to include them in choosing which foods everyone in the family is eating. Get your kids to help preparing the meal (even little kids can wash vegies) and involve them in the family cooking routine. This may not be practical on a weeknight so you could write a post-it to remind yourself to allocate one meal job per child on the weekend.

A note about when to eat

Some children are irregular in their habits, including eating. For these children, parents need to be flexible about having smaller regular meals. Would 5 small meals work instead of 3 larger ones? Mornings can be hard for these kid. Eating a small amount straight away can help regulate their blood sugar. If you are an irregular style parent and not keen on routine it will take effort to prioritise your children’s mealtime routine and keep it structured. It’s worth it as it will get the routine going and reduce the poor behaviour which can happen when kids have low blood sugar.

Kids who eat too fast or too much

When kids eat too fast or too much we label them the “overeater”. We spend a lot of time telling this child to “slow down”. It’s not effective. Instead of using negative labels and repeating yourself, focus on teaching them how to self-regulate. Talk about how we feel when our tummy is not full enough, too full or just right. Encourage them to pay attention to their tummy. Kids need to learn how eating right feels to them. Over time this will help them to pay attention to hunger cues and to eat the right amount.

What does it feel like to be full?

Focus on the things your child needs to understand in order to learn how to self-regulate their intake. Feelings start in the body.  All kids need to develop emotional literacy around this. For younger children there are some really good books on this. The little penguin in the book called “The penguin who wanted to find out” by Jill Tomlinson had an “asking feeling” in his tummy. Being curious about what is happening in the body and noticing and mentioning the things your child needs to notice when she is eating will help her to learn this. For a fast eater this will be much more effective than just repeating “slow down”.

Use descriptive praise at the table to focus attention on behaviour we want to see more of

Descriptive praise is one of the key skills to motivate children and help them to follow rules. Here’s how to do it:

Praise what you SEE

“I noticed you stopped and talked for longer at the dinner table. It’s nice to hear what you have to say at dinner time.”


“I notice how you were slowing down and taking a sip of water between mouthfuls. I’m wondering if you are noticing how you feel when you have finished eating. Do you feel just right and not too hungry and not too full?”


“You’re paying more attention to how your tummy feels. It’s important to slow down and pay attention to your tummy.”

The hardest time of the day

Bear in mind that dinner time is the time of the day when we are all tired and we are expecting ourselves and our children to be flexible and understanding over what may already be a stressful issue. Instead of going over old ground and focusing on the things that are not going so well think about how we can direct attention to the steps in the right direction. If we are moving towards developing self-awareness and being regulated then our child is going to be more able to self-regulate.

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