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End the Meal Time Battles

girl refusing to eat vegetables

Do you dread mealtimes knowing there will be at least one meltdown during the meal?  Does your child refuse to eat what you are serving?  Are you bribing your child to take one more bite?  Is food a major source of power struggles in your home? 

Fortunately, Nutritionist Ellyn Satter has provided us with the secrets to stopping the battles at meal time. 

  1. Know the division of responsibility.  When it comes to food Ellyn Satter clearly states, “Do NOT fight over food.  Instead know your responsibilities.”
    A parent’s responsibility is to select the foods, always including something the child likes, and to decide when to serve the meals family-style.  Family-style serving is important because it allows your child to “pass” the food and see it, before deciding whether to try it.  Once you have done these things, your job is finished.  Sit down and enjoy the meal with your child.
    The child’s job is to decide if to eat, what to eat and how much to eat of the foods being served on the table.  “How much” is managed by what’s in the serving bowl. If the bowl is empty, rather than going to the cupboard for more, another food that is on the table is offered.  Older children can be included in the meal planning. 
  2. Serve six mini meals a day. Meals are spaced about 2.5 to 3 hours apart.  Each meal includes a protein, carbohydrate, fruit and/or vegetable and a little fat.  If your child chooses not to eat there is no worry, you will be serving another mini meal in a mere 2.5 hours.  Frequent meals also prevent blood sugar drops and the “hangrys” – anger cause by hunger.  A sample mini-meal schedule may be: 7:00 AM breakfast, 9:30 mid-morning mini-meal, 12:00 lunch, 2:30 mid-afternoon mini-meal, 5:30 dinner, 7:30 bedtime mini-meal.
  3. No cajoling, bribing, threatening, or rewarding for eating, or not eating. The conversation is simply about the day – not about how much your child is or is not eating.  Research demonstrates that children allowed to decide if they are hungry and to stop eating when they are full learn a healthy sense of satiation.  Also, children who are not bribed or coerced to eat vegetables – eat more of them. 
  4. Dessert options are included in the meal.  Let your child know ahead of time there will be a dessert so that she can save room. Desserts can be healthy such as fruits or nuts, but a serving of something sweet may also be included.  Dessert is the one exception to multiple servings from the serving bowl.  Everyone gets one serving.  Desserts are not used as a bribe.  Resist stating, “Eat all your vegetables, or try one more bite and you will get dessert.”  This philosophy teaches your child that desserts are not all that special.  They are simply a food item, something to enjoy, but not to sneak when no one is looking. 
  5. Protect your child’s sleep.  Sleep deprivation leads to craving carbohydrates.  Make certain your child is getting the recommended amount of sleep for his age group; 12 hours for preschoolers, 13-14 for toddlers, 10-11 hours for school-age, 9.25 hours for adolescents and 8.25 hours for you.  If your child is craving sweets – increase the amount of sleep he is getting. If you must wake him, he is not getting enough. 

When you follow Ellyn’s recommendations, your children will gradually begin to eat a more varied healthy diet.   Mealtime battles will end, and instead meals will become a time of day when you all look forward to gathering together to talk about your day.  

A few great resources are:

  • Child of Mine, by Ellyn Satte
  • Try New Food:  How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat ad Like New Foods, by Jill Castle
  • Love Me, Feed Me, by Katja Rowell, MD
  • And the chapter on eating in my book, Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D

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