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How to Improve Your Child’s Mealtime Behavior (Plus, Extra Tips for Picky Eaters)
Mealtime can be such a challenge when you have young kids. And getting your child to eat anything, let alone healthy foods, can sometimes feel like pulling teeth.
My daughter is under 2 but is already starting to test the limits when it comes to what she can get away with during mealtime. And it can certainly be frustrating when you are trying to enjoy a meal (that has already cooled down) with a child crying in your ear.
When I worked as a child therapist, I would hear so many parents express concern about their kids being picky eaters or throwing fits at the dinner table. For many families, it becomes a huge battle to get their kids to take part in dinnertime.
So I’ve compiled a list of child therapist tips to help you improve your child’s mealtime behavior and avoid mealtime battles.
10 Tips to Improve Your Child’s Mealtime Behavior
1. Be consistent with your mealtime routines
Establishing routines can often improve your child’s behavior. So try to eat around the same times every day. And make sure that meals take place at the kitchen/dining room table.
2. Establish rules and expectations for mealtimes.
Sometimes it is difficult for children to sit for long periods of time, so if this is the case, establish a certain amount of time that you expect your child to sit and then gradually increase that time as he gets better with sitting. Or perhaps if your child refuses to eat, then you make a rule that he is at least required to sit at the dinner table for the duration of dinner.
The rules will depend on your child’s level of development and current behavior. Start out simple, and then increase expectations as your child gets better with them. Make sure that your child knows the mealtime rules.
It’s helpful to sit down together and write rules and expectations on paper or a poster board. And don’t forget to remind your child of expectations throughout mealtime.
3. Avoid giving your child snacks or too much to drink before meals.
This will keep your child from filling up on other food before mealtime.
4. Offer your child equal options before you make the meal.
Allow your child to be part of the meal-planning process by having him pick the vegetable, for instance. Just be sure you are giving equal options (“Peas or carrots?”… NOT “Peas or light, buttery biscuits?”).
5. Engage your child in the meal prep process.
Kids are more likely to try out foods if they take part in putting the meal together. Don’t force your child to help you make meals and create an unnecessary power struggle, but at least ask your child every day if he wants to help you with a very small, doable task.
6. Praise your child frequently.
Praise throughout the entire mealtime. Be sure to praise your child for taking a seat at the table, for eating, for sitting, and for trying new foods, even if it’s only a bite.
7. Make mealtime as much fun as possible
I’m not saying to start food fights or to watch television while eating dinner, but try to avoid creating a negative atmosphere for dinnertime. Instead, have positive conversations as a family or play word games to make mealtime a little more rewarding.
8. If needed, use rewards and/or a reward chart to address mealtime.
For instance, having your child take a certain amount of bites in order to earn a sweet treat for dessert often works well. Just be sure that you are offering healthier sweet treats if this is going to occur frequently.
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9. Ignore behaviors like pouting, whining, and arguing.
Your child is likely going to push your buttons to try to get out of eating or sitting at the table. So you might hear a lot of crying or defiant statements. But responding to these behaviors might only make the problem worse. So try not to engage in arguing back with your child or drawing too much attention to these behaviors.
Instead, remind your child of the expectations. Think about which behaviors you should ignore, and work with your spouse or fellow caregiver to ignore consistently.
Remember to also draw more attention to your child’s good behaviors, as opposed to the “bad” behaviors, so that the good behaviors will increase.
10. Be careful in your choice of consequences.
If your child demonstrates more severe behaviors (such as destructive or aggressive behaviors), then you can enforce a consequence. Just be strategic in your choice of consequences and try to have a plan in place before mealtime.
Note that punishing your child for not eating could end up just creating a negative atmosphere around mealtime. So I recommend focusing more on using praise and rewards and only using punishment to address more intense misbehavior.
Remember that kids may misbehave on purpose if it helps them to get out of something. So if you choose to implement a time-out for misbehavior, be sure that your child is still expected to follow through with demands (eating, sitting, etc.) after completing the time-out.
If you find that this strategy isn’t working, then your child may be satisfied with delaying mealtime. So in that case, you could try using a different consequence. Just keep in mind that consequences should be delivered as immediately after the behavior as possible.
*Be sure to try any strategies you put into place consistently for at least 2-3 weeks before giving up and moving on to a new strategy.
Extra Tips for Picky Eaters:
Start off small.
Give your child a larger percentage of more favorable food and a small percentage of the new or undesired food. You can gradually increase the quantity of undesired food as your child gets better with it.
Have your child try a food 8 times before giving up on it.
It takes 8 times to do something before it becomes a habit. But if you give up and stop presenting the food to your child, this decreases the chances of your child getting used to the food.
Try to prepare the food in different ways.
Your child might hate broccoli with butter, but he may like it with cheese. So test out different methods for preparing foods instead of giving up on the food altogether.
Reward your child for even small efforts.
At first, you may need to reward your child for taking even a small bite before working your way up to larger portions. You can reward your child with things like a desired meal or a dessert.
What about sneaking healthy foods into your child’s food?
There are many ways that you can incorporate healthy foods into the food your child already eats or would enjoy eating. For instance, you could blend some spinach into strawberry yogurt or make your child a smoothie.
My suggestion is that after your child has identified that he likes the food when you do this, tell him what was in it. This way, he’ll realize that he actually likes that particular food, at least some of the time.
If telling your child the ingredients will likely backfire and you’re concerned about your child’s nutrition, then in this case, you could try sneaking healthy foods into preferred foods without telling him.
So what tips have been helpful for you when it comes to mealtime behaviors and picky eaters? I would love to know!
If your child has been throwing fits in relation to mealtime or just in general and you want some help with how to handle them, check out my FREE course!
*This post contains an affiliate ad below, which means I receive a small commission if you click the ad and make a purchase. But this comes at no extra cost to you.
Disclaimer: Although I was a therapist, I am not your therapist or your child’s therapist. Reading this post does not enter you into a client-therapist relationship with me. The content in this post is meant to be used as a general guideline and has not been individually tailored to the needs of you and your child. If you are in need of therapeutic services, please seek the support of a mental health counselor or behavior specialist.
References: My information comes from years of training on Applied Behavior Analysis, Parent Behavior Management Training, and other evidence-based techniques. I also like to refer to Russell Barkley and Alan Kazdin.