How to Create Rules For Mealtimes

An Interview with Bonnie Harris

Establish rules for mealtimes to teach your child appropriate table manners and to encourage your child to have a healthy attitude toward food. Image courtesy of photostock/

Many parents struggle to deal with children’s behavior problems that occur during mealtimes. Establishing a list of household rules that include rules about food and mealtimes is a great way to prevent behavior problems and avoid power struggles that can result around food.

I interviewed Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, who is the director of Connective Parenting and the author of “When Kids Push Your Buttons,” and “Confident Parents Remarkable Kids” to get her ideas about how parents can establish healthy and helpful rules about food and mealtimes.

What are some helpful mealtime rules parents can establish?

My number one mealtime rule is never talk about food at the table. Talk plenty about nutrition when you are shopping with children and preparing foods, but never at the table. At the table, engage in enjoyable conversation, games like I Spy, and questions for the kids on subjects you know they want to talk about.

The dining room table is the hearth of the family and should be one of the most pleasant times of the day that all family members look forward to. When parents force kids to eat, threaten no desserts, talk about chores, etc. it becomes a dreaded place to be.

My other table tips:

  • The parent's responsibility is what comes into the house and the preparation of food; the child's is what goes down.
  • Prepare a meal for the family, not one for each of the members. Always include one thing that you know a picky eater will eat, like bread or cheese but do not build the meals around the picky eater.
  • Never force a picky eater to eat any more than she wants.
  • Never use dessert as a reward for eating. That sends exactly the wrong message about food.

    Related article: Behaviors that can be Addressed with Reward Systems
  • Put food in bowls for each person to serve themselves. Do not prepare a plate of expectations for the children.
  • For fun, eat with chopsticks, toothpicks (if age-appropriate). Once in a while have a meal that must be eaten with hands tied behind backs.
  • Encourage kids to shop with you and learn how to read labels and ingredients.
  • Do not bring food into the house that you don't want your children to eat.

Why is it important for families to eat meals together?

It is the one time in the day when all the family can sit and spend time focused on each other. It is a time when values are shared, good modeling happens, things get talked about that often don't any other time of the day.

How should parents respond to behavior problems during a meal? For example, if a child frequently gets up from the table during dinner, how should a parent respond?

Young children up to 5 or 6 should be expected to get up and down from the dinner table. It's hard for little children to sit still for long periods of time, especially those who are very active or have ADHD.

If the dinner table is a fun place to be, the child will always come back. That should be the goal, not making them sit. As they get older, perhaps the rule changes to staying in contact with your seat but getting up, leaning on it, etc. With development and maturity, the child will stay seated especially if that is what is modeled by the adults.

Learn more: How to Role Model the Behaviors You Want to See From Your Kids

If kids are throwing things at each other and otherwise behaving in a way that makes the meal unpleasant, the consequence is that the meal is over. The adults can take their meal to another place after the table is cleared. The kitchen should be closed at that point.

The natural consequence is that no one wants to be with this behavior. Nothing blaming or threatening has to happen. It should be understood ahead of time that if that kind (be specific) of behavior happens, the meal will be over.

How should parents deal with a slow eater? For example, if a child is frequently distracted or talking during breakfast and he needs to get off to school on time, how should parents respond?

I don't believe a slow eater should be pushed to eat faster.

If you have a slow eater, the parent should anticipate this and make sure breakfast time allows enough time. Then when that time is up, the food and dishes are cleared and the meal is over. Nothing punitive or judgmental needs to be said. If the child balks, it can be simply stated that the time has come for breakfast to be done and getting ready to leave needs to begin.

What steps can parents take to prevent behavior problems at mealtimes?

Making the mealtime a very enjoyable place to be with no pressures of any kind is the best prevention measure, especially when both parents are present. Expectations and rules need to be clearly stated so the children know what will happen.

Rituals are always helpful: The family takes turns telling the worst and best part of their day, what they are each grateful for, something nice that was done for them that day, etc. It's also nice with young children to have a candle lighting ritual. Each member lights a candle for another member of the family. If one is too young, the parent or older sibling helps.

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