Michael J. Prince, B.A., Psychology


Eating: Mealtime Problems

by Elaine M. Gibson

"My kids eat -- but not all at once. I get them to the table and they take a few bites then get down and go off to play. An hour later they are hungry and want a snack. This is called grazing, not mealtime and it's driving us crazy."

Behaviors such as these are all too common when children are small. Eating is a socialized process and it is up to parents to train their children. There is a solution for all these problems but it requires firmness, consistency, and kindness.

Parents need to first determine the house rules for mealtime behavior.

It is essential that both parents agree on these rules and resolve to enforce the rules in like fashion. A united front is always necessary.

After the rules are explained to the kids, the children are informed of

1.the specific behavior required

2.the reason for the requirement

3.the consequences of not following the rule.

For example: Neither parent can stand for the children to leave the table then come back asking for food. Cleaning up the kitchen all night is a real pain. These parents decide the following:

Rule -- Dinner is over when you leave the table. There will be no snacks served unless the whole dinner was eaten at dinner time.

Reason -- We are tired of serving as short-order cooks.

Consequence -- If you choose to leave the table before finsihing your meal, your meal is over. We will remove your plate and there will be no snacks. You will eat at the next meal time.

At this point, the responsibility for eating or not eating is placed squarely on the child -- where it belongs. A child two years of age can understand this. The parents are refusing to nag and argue with the child any more. The child, regardless of age, will not believe the parent. There will be a test at the next meal.


1.The first time the child takes three bites and asks to be excused, the parents merely say, "You may be excused." No reminders or pleading or warning. They promptly remove the plate.

2.The child will then either not be disturbed because he really wasn't hungry (which is fine, no parental action necessary) or he will soon be back asking for food.

3.The parents then calmly explain that the meal is over and no food will be available until the next meal.

4.The child will then beg, plead, and promise anything to get food. This display is motivatied more by power than by hunger. The child is testing the parents' stamina. Don't be taken in. This requires firmness but the goal is worthwhile.

5.Parents must not lecture. The child knows the rule even if he says he forgot. This experience will teach him the rule. The parent's only comment needs to be, "The next meal is lunch (or whatever)."

6.During the following hours, the child will (depending on age and ability) whine, cry, complain, gripe, beg, and swear that he is starving to death. It is vital for the parents not to argue or give in at this point. Let the hunger the child is experiencing teach the child this lesson.

7.Parents must not point out, "I told you so!" or "If only you had listened." The child will learn.

Let the Consequences Teach

This approach is neither unfair nor cruel. Children learn best what they can learn for themselves. It is truly amazing that in our society, parents who think nothing of inflicting the physical pain of a spanking or the emotional pain of criticism and ridicule, cannot bear to let a child be hungry. A brief experience with hunger can teach a child what months or years of mealtime arguments cannot.

This procedure may have to be repeated any number of times depending on the persistence of the child. Difficult children will repeat this procedure until they are sure parents won't give in. Nagging will never be necessary. Children will understand, THEY REALLY MEAN IT! Once the point is made, one reminder, "Are you finished?" will be sufficient warning from now on.

There is another variation for the child who won't eat at meals but wants snacks later. When the child is "finished" and wants to leave the table, remove the plate and cover it with plastic wrap. Leave the plate in the refrigerator and when the child comes back hungry, offer the plate. Do not heat the food or make it better. If the child really wasn't hungry earlier and is hungry now, this is a fair approach. If the child refuses the meal, don't offer anything else. Even picky eaters can learn to eat what is offered.