I often have people ask me about the mealtime “rules” they have heard about or their
friends use. What should they follow and what should they not? It can be difficult to navigate with so much different advice flying around. As a pediatric OT that specializes in feeding, I want to throw my two cents into the pot and share with you the yea’s, nay’s, and maybe’s.
My hope is that parents or caregivers can have feedback on these popular rules if they aren’t sure what direction to go in or if what they are doing isn’t working. Moreover, if your child is a problem feeder or a picky eater than some of these rules may actually do more harm than good. Unfortunately, parents of these kiddos are often desperately looking for advice (understandably so) and lots of friends and family dispense what works for their kids, which adds a lot of pressure to stressed parents. I really want to eliminate that! With that being said, I’m not going to address all of the manner type rules (i.e. put your napkin in your lap, chew with your mouth closed, etc.), unless I think they could negatively impact eating. I will also not be sharing all of MY basic mealtime rules. If you are interested in that you can click here or under Eating Basics in the menu bar.
Let’s get started! For each “rule”, I’ll be giving a rating of Yea, Nay, or Maybe and of course a full explanation of why I feel that way from a feeding therapist and mom perspective. One quick disclaimer, I know some of you may have already implemented one or more of the “rules” that I may be “naying”. Please know that I respect your parenting choices and I realize that it may work for your family. In that case, I support what you are doing, but please understand that it may not work for someone else. I encourage productive and constructive comments about the rules your family uses.
1. Eat what is in front of you (and no other food until you do).
Nay – I think most parents know in there gut that this isn’t the way to go, but many parents with picky eaters often end up resorting to this at one time or another. The obvious logic is that if you only offer your child new or non-preferred food they will eventually be hungry and eat it, BUT this often backfires. Research actually shows that a small percentage of kids will actually go hungry. I can’t tell you how many homes I’ve been in that shared with me that they tried this at a doctor’s advice only to have their child become quite ill and their eating get even worse.
2. No dessert (TV, electronics, etc.) until you finish (all or some predetermined amount of) your food.
Nay – When I was growing up this was our family rule and was common in most homes. Now that several generations have grown into adults with unhealthy eating habits, health experts now believe that using food as a reward is fundamentally detrimental to our relationship with food. Think about it, most of us (me included) look to food when we are down or to pat ourselves on the back when we did a good job. You know what I’m talking about, you got some recognition at work so you treat yourself to ice-cream or you had a really bad day so you hunt down a piece of cake. It fills a void because we were constantly rewarded with sugary treats. Moreover, we are teaching our kids that the veggies/meat really aren’t that good, but just something we have to do to get to the dessert. I really want to teach my kids to enjoy a variety of food not just the goodies.
I know some of you may be thinking… “I don’t care, if it gets the veggies/meat in their mouth,” but it just doesn’t work for some kids with difficulty eating and then you are left jumping through hoops anyways. I will say that some feeding therapist use food rewards as a strategy to make progress with kids at times, but most would agree that they fade these dessert rewards out.
3. Take a polite bite/Try a bite for each year of age.
Maybe – I have to admit I hadn’t heard of this rule until I started blogging. When I scroll through my main page on Pinterest I will occasionally see an article written by a mommy blogger about picky eating. Of course, I click through to see if I can share it as a resource. Almost every time I do I see this rule listed among their strategies and I cringe a bit. Please know I’m not trying to put anyone down here, but I do have some reservations about this rule. As I said above, it’s fine if it works for your family, which is why I gave it a “maybe”. Again, for kids with eating difficulties, this is just setting the bar way to high and can put a lot of stress on a kid with sensory processing and/or chewing difficulties. So many of the parents I work with have tried this just to have meals end in total meltdowns because it is too much for them. The parents feel defeated and don’t understand how it could possibly work for their friends kids. I do like that it gets some kids tasting and trying foods, as well as teaching them to be respectful, but it isn’t a one-size-fits all kind of rule.
4. Let toddlers graze.
Nay – It is true that toddlers prefer to graze on food because they don’t want to sit long enough to eat, but for many kids this is a slippery slope that leads to really poor eating habits. In addition, some kids won’t consume enough calories throughout the day. I know this is temptingly easy and a particular doctor has recommended it in his books, but if you can, you are better off avoiding it and putting the work in up front to develop good eating habits like sitting at a table and regular meal times.
5. I decide what goes on the plate and my child decides what they eat.
Yea – Ding, Ding, Ding, we have a winner!!! I know this is easier said than done because it requires us to relinquish some control. It is our job to set up the what, when, and where they eat, which is enormously important and can have a huge impact on the eater’s our kids ultimately become. It is our child’s job to decide how much they eat. I am not saying that means you don’t work at getting your child to eat new foods or that there will be meals where your child doesn’t eat enough. However, if you set up a positive environment where they can feel comfortable exploring new foods and they know they only have to eat until their stomach is full, then you can expect to raise a child with a healthy relationship with food. With this rule it is important to have structured mealtimes that are spaced 2.5-3 hours apart. If your child says their belly is full after only a few bites, make sure they understand that they won’t be eating again until the next meal and follow through on it. By two and a half kids are capable of understanding this, for younger kids do your best to hold to it, but exceptions need might need to be made.
Thanks to input from the facebook fans who provided some great insight on how they use this rule in their home. If you want to read more about getting your kid to try a new or non-preferred food click here.
6. No special or individual meals.
Yea – Serving everyone the same food is important because it shows kids that you are eating together as a family and it doesn’t promote picky eating. Although the way we cook and what we serve undoubtedly changes when we have kids, there should be an equal compromise. Meaning, you aren’t going to serve sushi or steak salad with your 20 month old and expect them to manage that, but in the same turn you don’t need to rotate between mac n’ cheese and spaghetti o’s every other night either.
If your child is a problem feeder and you are already stuck making them separate meals, then slowly start to have them put something new on their plate from what everybody else is eating. Also, put some of what they are eating on your plate, too!
7. No negative talk about food at the table.
Yea – This goes for adults too! Try to get in the habit of talking neutrally about food even if you don’t like it and encourage this same behavior from your kids. I tell my kids when they say something like “that smells stinky,” that we don’t talk about food that way. Instead of the negative comments, encourage kids to describe the food, such as, that has a really strong/salty/tart taste to it.
8. Sit at the table until everyone is done.
Maybe – I totally get this from a manners stand point and for most older children this is completely appropriate, but I think for younger kids it can be a lot to ask. Depending on the child and what their limit is, start by slowly building up the time. For instance, if your 2 year old melts down after 5 minutes, then aim to keep him there just for 7 minutes initially. I wouldn’t recommend making any child sit longer than 30 minutes total.
9. Sit at the table for all meals.
Yea – First of all, this is just the safest way to eat, so many kids choke on foods accidentally even when they are older. Just as important though is that we teach our kids that eating is an important part of the day that is structured and a regular part of the routine. Sitting at the table allows kids to focus on their eating and explore new foods. This is much more difficult to do on the go or on the couch. Of course, there are special exceptions when this rule can be broken, but it shouldn’t be a habit.
If I missed any “rule” that you were wondering about than please leave a comment and I will share my thoughts!
If you have a problem feeder/picky eater and want more help click here, here, and here. Or, if you are a new parent and are looking for more advice on setting up healthy eating habits click here and here.