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.
I’ve been wanting to stop making 2 meals for my now 5 year old for quite sometime and it was suggested to me to make the one meal and if he chooses to not eat that meal then offer it for breakfast. If he then chooses to again not eat the meal he is offered for lunch and so on. I’m feeling very conflicted. Any help would be greatly appreciated 🙂
There are a lot of picky eating strategies out there, and this is one I don’t personally agree with. I would make sure to offer one preferred food with each meal though.
Hi there, my nearly 4 year old use to eat so well. Such a big change now as he is so picky and now going off more food. He won’t eat anything like mash, Shepard’s pie, spaghetti bolognese.. or any homely dinners also as soon as he sits at the table he says he doesn’t want it. He says the mash will make him sick and I think he maybe referring back to a long time ago when he was sick at dinner. I still put a little of what we have on his plate knowing he won’t touch it but it’s also along side something I know he would eat if he did. Many times iv told him to wait until we have all finished at the table , then when we have he is aloud down but if he is hungry later I give him the dinner for him to have.
Now I really would love for him to eat what we all eat as my nearly 2 year old eats very well (for now maybe), also to eat at the same time as us.
Any advice please.
I know this is really frustrating! It is pretty typical for this age to lose some foods. I think my free picky eating workshop will offer you some tips that will help.
Ok…I need help. My daughter is almost 3 and meal times is a great source of anxiety and stress for my husband and myself. Our struggle is, that no matter what we put out, even if she picks it out and I know we really need to work on not being the short order cook part, she will not eat it. We can be sitting at the table for an hour or more and she won’t eat. I read on another blog to set a timer and then when it goes off the food gets taken away if there is anything left on the plate. So we have tried this tactic and it is proving not effective mostly because of the whole pressuring to eat, which I get now. She screams and cries if we take her plate of uneaten food away, but yet she sits there for 30″ and just talks and plays with her food. But if we even elude to the idea that she must be done eating then she gets upset and wants to eat. But she may eat only 1 bite and then we are back to just sitting there doing everything possible except eating. So is putting a time limit on eating time a way to go? We can’t sit there with her and talk about eating for over an hour. If we excuse her from the table but continues to claim that she is hungry do we allow more food to be eaten even after the dinner has been cleaned up? Feeding times has been a constant issue with our oldest and after 2.5 years we are getting tired, frustrated and she is getting the same with us. Anymore advice that could be offered would be great. I have loved reading so far what I have seen and we will begin slowly implementing a lot of your concepts and tx ideas into practice. I don’t want to overwhlem her at first, but I think our first big step is the no pressure eating. Which I want it to be that way but that’s my biggest problem is how long do we let her sit there and not eat because as soon as we say dinner is over she “flips” and wants her food but then continues to sit and not eat?
Emily, this is a great question- so glad you asked because this will be an important point for you. Meals do need to be around 1/2 hour. You can approach this two different ways. First, and this will be the least stressful, begin by not letting meals go past 50 minutes for a few days, then 40 minutes for a few days or up to a week, and then 30 minutes. If it were me I would give lots of warnings to her and consider setting a timer, giving reminders as the end of the meal is approaching. She may cry, she may tantrum. That is okay, let her have her tantrum and divert her to something else. When you are giving her the warnings, make sure you tell her, if you don’t eat anything now you won’t be eating until the next meal. You will have to follow through on that, and that can be challenging. With your consistency she’ll know what you mean in a few days or weeks.
Also, I wouldn’t ask her what she wants to eat. You choose making sure she has one preferred food. Check out the start here guides in the menu bar, they should be really helpful!
I’m so happy I found this site! I have read similar things on the internet about food rules, but this is the first time I’ve heard anyone mention 2.5-3 hr. between meals, which is something that I think would totally help me with my ultra-picky 4 yr. old. As well as the one-preferred-food per meal. Wonderful advice! But I have a couple of questions: In regards to rule #2 when it comes to dessert: We don’t eat dessert a lot, maybe once a week or so on average. So, you’re saying if my child doesn’t eat dinner I should still let him eat that piece of chocolate cake/cookies/ or whatever it is the rest of us are eating? That’s a tough one for me to grasp. And regarding preferred foods; should I allow my child to just fill up on that one food if he refuses to eat the other foods on his plate? In that case, my son would probably eat nothing but carbs at every meal! Or, should I tell him he needs to eat the other foods on his plate before he has seconds of his preferred food? *sigh*…. It’s been difficult for me to enforce any type of rules in regards to eating in our house because my husband isn’t totally on board with me. He feels that I’m “starving” the kids if I don’t give them their preferred foods whenever they don’t want what’s on the table. He’s a very picky eater himself, so I believe some of the negativity towards food may be influenced by him, unfortunately.
I know dessert can be tough to let be a freebie so to speak, but the idea is that you are having dessert that night it has nothing to do with what else they ate. Otherwise you are sending the message that dessert is a reward that must be earned and the other food is less desirable. With that being said if you kid eats nothing, especially food you know they like I think you have some wiggle room, but choose your words wisely. I would say something like, “All the sugar that is in the dessert could upset your belly if you haven’t eaten anything else. We need to eat some our dinner to be able to have dessert.”
As for preferred foods, serve an appropriate portion of everything, or smaller sizes on non-preferred. Again, you will want to choose your words when they ask for more of the preferred. This happens nearly every night at my table. I say something like, “we need to try (touch, taste, etc.) all the foods on our plate. I don’t request a specific number of bites or get to specific. This will be different for each kid and you will want to make the demand greater over time as they make progress.
My question is about eating until the belly is full and dessert. So if they decide their bellies are full after only a few bites because they are avoiding what they don’t like. Do you then still offer dessert? I struggle with this.
I would say no, then dessert is off if they are full and let them know that. I would also consider having dessert a little later or not having dessert every day, maybe it is just a sometimes thing that has nothing to do with how much or what they ate. This can be a gradual change, I know that these changes can be hard!
Very interesting post thank you. It can be stressful as a parent when mealtimes are going wrong. It feels like you can’t do even the “simplest” think for your child. I wrote a post a while ago to share what has worked in our house with my son who has (I could almost say “had” now) food phobias. It might be of interest http://childpleasejusteat.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/how-i-would-encourage-my-child-to-eat-something/
we have a picky eater but we are on a tight budget so meal planning is really important to us. we have decided to make little picture cards with a picture of our most common meals and a list of their ingredients. on sat we all sit down and work out a meal plan for the following week. we each get to choose one card (including our 1 yr old) and the other 3 days of the week are chosen in agreement. the cards are then our shopping list and added to our wall chart of what we are doing that week so he can see for himself whats for dinner. it makes my 4 yr old feel more in control and consulted. we respect his choices on the day he chooses and expect him to respect ours on the days we choose. we compromise with each other on the other days
Oh Corrin, I love that! Thank you so much for sharing, I hope it inspires some other parents to work out similar solutions for their own family.
I totally agree! I’m a dietitian who loves working with families and I teach very similar principles. I would go even farther and let kids plate their own food if it is safe to do so (i.e. not a giant hot pot of soup). Thanks for your blog, I’ve sent clients and my FB page followers to some of your articles too 🙂
Thank you so much Adina! I totally agree with you, serving family is style is such an important tool. I’ve actually written a post completely on that topic, which you can find in the Article Index (in the menu bar at the top).
I have a question regarding dessert. My six year old always “saves room for dessert” at dinner time. In the past, I’ve asked her to eat x amount of food before she is allowed dessert. What do you reccomend, as I would like for her to trust her instinct but still eat a proper dinner before dessert.
It can be really tricky to go backwards on this. I would start to make desserts smaller or better yet healthier. Maybe a baked apple with some oats and honey? Maybe some fresh fruit? Have her be part of the process and you could even tell her that the cookies/candy/cake/ice cream are just “sometimes” food. I would also start to talk to her about how you want her to eat her dinner until she feels full and then later you can have dessert when she’s hungry. Let her know she doesn’t need to save room. I would focus on this being a process, not something you need to change drastically.
Our house rule: No screens at the table. No phones. No laptops. TVs and iPods go off. In fact, no toys of any kind. This goes for mom and dad too. Sharing food is one of the ways the human animal bonds with others. I expect everyone at the table to be present.
“It is our child’s job to decide how much they eat”- well, I’ve got the opposite problem. My 20 month old boy has a massive appetite, eats sometimes more than. He is allergic to milk and dairy, soya, tomatoes, coco, still breastfeed. Because of allergies I would say our diet is extremely healthy, no processed or junk food, no sweets etc, a lot of veggies, fruit, fish and grains. So we’re not talking chips and ice cream here. Is it possible to a kid at this age to eat to much of the good stuff? He used to be a very skinny baby on the bottom of scale, now he’s well build, but not fat in my opinion. Our pedi says he gained to much and I should restrict the amounts of food. But that doesn’t seem right to me, he’s always in motion, grows so fast and he does eat only healthy stuff. Can a kid have to much millet or broccoli?
We are really getting into personal opinions here and I obviously don’t know that much about your child, but I think it is an incredibly rare situation to limit children’s food at this age if they are eating healthy. However, if he just eats all day long that isn’t a good thing either. I would try to make sure he is on a schedule and doesn’t have anything but water in between his meals.
I wonder if my son has a sensory issue – not against food, but FOR it. When he’s in an overly stimulating situation he has always, since infancy, wanted to eat until he spills over. He remains a dedicated thumb-sucker and it can calm him instantly. I wonder if his internal senses become blunted by stress and so he seeks food stim. I get terrible looks when I deny food or water to a crying toddler, let me tell you! But I try to manage the stress rather than let him eat himself sick.
Yes, that is entirely possible! I don’t know how old he is, but give him something appropriate to chew on- vibrating teethers, toothbrush, or gum.
When I was growing up, we had a rule that my brother and I could have 5 things on our list of things we didn’t like. We were allowed to change it once a month… it’s funny, the consistent things on my list are still things I will not eat as an adult and they’re all textural based dislikes. But a separate meal was definitely not an option…Broccoli was always on there but I liked the core peeled so that’s what I would get whenever we had broccoli. And we also had the “kitchen’s closed until breakfast” rule if we chose not to eat what we took (we always served ourselves the amount we wanted) 🙂
We use a “no thank you bite” at our table so my daughter needs to take at least 1 bite of everything before saying “no thank you”. We have always eaten all of our meals at the table and she picks out what she wants for dinner at least 1 night a week when we go shopping and she helps prepare it. She has never been a problem eater and loves to try new things and pick out new things at the store. When she is finished, she has to ask to be excused. If she isn’t hungry, I don’t force her to eat but I do save her plate for when she is hungry and she usually will eat everything when she is ready.
Interesting post. Our rules are staying seated (no hopping up & down, standing on chairs, running around the table swapping chairs), no toys & your number 2 – if you eat all your dinner you get a treat/dessert. We also just started number 9. We really struggle with number 4 & 6. He eats so much his grazing is more like full on meals! He eats super healthy too, just limited types of food, so I’m not sure if I should rock the boat too much just to get him to eat more variety. It’s tough!
It is definitely a personal decision. I respect any parents decision to do what works in their home. If things start to go south though, you have these strategies to put in place.
She’s also shaking every morning. She’s a terrible sleeper so I hate to wake her but since she’s shaking almost every a.m. maybe I should wake her a few hours earlier so feed her?
I’m seeing her pedi this week too but any ideas are helpful.
I would definitely talk to her doctor about this, but I would probably not wake her. Maybe she needs something right before bed, the doctor or nutritionist should be able to recommend so that her sugar intake is where it needs to be.