The dinner table really doesn’t have to be a battleground! Just like there are rules set in every school classroom, every family should have mealtime rules in place to set the tone for what should and shouldn’t be expected at the dinner table. Having appropriate mealtime rules sets kids up for a successful eating by ensuring structure and a safe and happy environment to explore and develop a good relationship with food.
My go to rules are based around the facts that:
1) meals have to be enjoyeable for everyone at the table
2) each person has their own responsibility or duty.
Firstly, everyone has the responsibilty of engaging and participating in the family dinner. This means… everyone has to sit at the table (whether you are hungry or not, and whether you like what is served or not). Sitting down together at a set time each day should become a family ritual where quite honestly, the focus doesn’t necessarily have to be around food. Rather, it’s about spending quality time, engaging in great conversation, and providing each other the opportunity to bond and connect with one another. This also means being fully present (i.e. no distractions like tv, phone, video games, toys, books, etc.).
According to Ellyn Satter’s theory on Division of Responsbility, parents are responsible for what and when a meal is served, while children have the responsibility of choosing if and how much they would like to eat. Everyone has the right to eat only what they like, however you can expand the number and types of food a child will like by setting up a happy stress-free environment where there is no bribing, coaxing, forcing or threatening to eat.
There should always be at least one item available as part of the dinner that they do like so they can choose to fill up on it should they not enjoy another food (usually, it’s something like a roll or plain rice). Not only will it allow picky eaters to experience less anxiety about coming to the dinner table, but research shows kids will branch out more when new foods are paired with familiar foods. For example, if your child usually eats pancakes in the morning, you can still serve the pancakes but add in a new fruit to the batter or on top and see if they like it. If you would like to serve a new soup for supper, make sure to serve it with 1/2 a grilled cheese sandwich which they like and are familiar with.
Like in many environments, your kids should also know that there is a right and wrong way to express their likes and dislikes. We don’t call any food “gross”, make faces, cry, or throw tantrums at the table as this is unacceptable behaviour. Instead, tell them they can say something like “this is not for me” if they don’t like a food, and let them politely spit the food out into a napkin. It’s also key that everyone knows they DO NOT HAVE TO EAT anything or everything. It is their choice completely…however, (and here is the key), there is only one opportunity to eat a meal, and once it’s over, no food is offered until the next scheduled snack or meal time. This will teach kids to eat until they are full, and not to expect food on demand (see blog post on why it’s ok to let your kids go hungry here).
These mealtime rules have really preserved the sanity in our house! It’s helped us instill healthy eating habits in the kids, decreased on-demand snacking, provided positive experiences to trying new foods, and ensured we have and enjoyeable happy family meals. Like with any set of rules, the key to enforcing them is being consistent, so make sure all members of the family are familiar with them and why they are there.
Try these out at home and happy eating!