I saw a question on a group forum this week from a desperate mom that was having trouble with her child at dinner time. She wanted to play with toys during dinner and then wanted to eat at bedtime. I shared with the moms on the forum our family dinner rule and thought maybe some of you might find it helpful too.
Our Family Dinner Rule:
Everyone has a choice, they can eat happily at the table or they can go lay in their bed with a book or a toy until dinner is over or until they are calm and ready to eat. If someone makes the choice not to join us at dinner time, their plate will be saved and offered again 30 minutes before bed time (usually before or after bath time). That is last call for dinner, and it is to be eaten at the table without company.
Why This Works for Us:
My son (he's three) loves attention. He loves the time at the table when both parents are sitting still right there with him ready to talk. He doesn't like doing much of anything alone, especially eating, so the few times he has chosen to delay his dinner time have caused him frustration.
"Come sit with meeeee."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Mommy and Daddy already sat at the table for their dinner and now we have other things to do. If you want us to sit with you while you eat, then tomorrow night, I hope you'll join us for dinner. We missed you tonight at the table."
The big reason this works is that our dinner time is pleasant and positive and the table is a fun place to be. If you rule the table with an iron fist, this family rule will not work, as your children will likely choose to eat quietly alone without you. If you want your child to sit at the table with you, then make the table a place your child would want to be. Aside from that obvious truth, stressful dinner times can also reek havoc on a person's relationship with food and can cause serious eating disorders down the road.
We also don't allow whining, crying (the acting out whiny cry, not the genuine I need comfort from my mama cry), or rudeness at the table either. When these behaviors occur and aren't quickly resolved, I send my son to his room to calm down and rejoin us when he's feeling kinder and calmer (it usually only takes a few minutes), and on occasion I've even implemented this rule on myself. "I need to go calm down. I'll be back in a few." No one person should bring down the mood at dinner for the rest of the family, no matter their age, (babies excepted).
Why Food is Not the Focus of This Rule:
Though I do have a lot to say about food and ways we can make the food we serve more enticing for children (I'll do some posts on this in the future), when it comes to this family rule, I realize, I cannot force a child to eat. It is one of the few areas that a child truly does have control over. I can control what is offered, how much is offered, when it is offered...but I cannot make a child eat...and neither can you. So my son chooses, within those boundaries whether or not to pick up his food and chew it. And that is a good and healthy thing, because for the rest of his life he'll need to be making this choice for himself. A child that feels like they have no control will often withhold eating simply because they discover they can...and they need to control something.
Making sure we give children choices throughout the day and especially surrounding dinner time can keep them from using food to feel in control...and save them from a life time of food-related struggles. Give them choices and responsibilities, like deciding which side to serve with the entree, helping you dress the salad (Which dressing should we use? How much do you think it needs? This much? More? This much? Should we add almonds or pecans on top?), letting them make place cards and pick where everyone will sit, letting them choose the napkins. When I visited a friend of mine, Erin MacPherson, author of The Christian Mama's Guide series, she let her kids choose the napkins for dinner from a drawer in her dining room hutch that was filled with an assortment of fun party napkins. It's so simple, but the kids loved it, it brought fun bright colors to the table, and it gave them ownership to the dinner experience. Who wouldn't want to sit at a family table with party napkins?
Compromises and Rewards:
My son is a three year old active, curious, always-on-the-go boy and his mind wanders a lot. Because of this, it's often a challenge to just get him to remember what we are at the table for: to eat. So even though he's fully capable of feeding himself, I do often put his food on the fork and put the fork in his hand. Here, have another bite. Some dinners I feel like I have to coach him through each bite, others not at all. He has genuine trouble staying focused on eating, so I find this to be a good comprise for us so dinner doesn't take an hour. When he's full, he won't take the bite I'm offering and instead he'll tell me, "I'm full."
If he has not eaten much and I feel like he should be hungrier for more food, based on how much he's had for snacks or lunch, then I might offer a reward if he'll eat more. You can go play outside/watch a 30 minute show/have 10 extra minutes of bath time play/pick an extra story at bedtime... if you finish your food or have x more bites. But those are choices for him to get something extra, not punishment. So nothing bad will happen if he doesn't eat, he just won't get that extra reward....and I act like it is no big deal. In a warm neutral voice I might say something like, "You can be done now if you want. That is your choice and mommy won't be mad. But if you want to go play outside a little more before bath time, then you can choose to eat three more bites of your dinner. It's totally up to you sweetie. What would you like to do?" If he chooses to be done, then I say. "Okay, can you please take your plate to the sink and let's go get ready for bath time/you can play inside for a few minutes while we clean up dinner." Don't make the reward an every night thing. You want them to eat just until they are full and learn to stop when they feel their body giving them that queue. If they are eating for a reward, they are not learning to listen to their bodies hunger signals.
On Going to Bed Hungry:
What if I do this and at bedtime my child says he is hungry?
I am not for sending a child to bed hungry. I don't like it one bit. It's not good for them or for the parents. But I also know that my three year old son is old enough to understand choices and consequences. He once chose to skip dinner and refused to eat when I offered him his plate after bath. At bedtime (15 minutes later), he was suddenly hungry. The first night, I gave in and let him come eat his plate....delaying his bedtime. Do you want to take a guess at how dinner went the next night? Yep, he refused dinner again...and my last call dinner option after bath. And then, surprise, was suddenly hungry at bedtime. I let him go to bed hungry and it wasn't pleasant. I hated it. But, do you want to know how dinner went the next night? Yep, he joined us at the table and has never chosen to go to bed hungry again. (Knock on wood!) I do not support sending a child at dinnertime straight to bed with no chance to eat again until breakfast. But I also believe children need to understand that their choices have consequences and choosing not to eat dinner has an unpleasant consequence.
If a child chooses to go to bed truly hungry more than a few times, then this Family Dinner Rule is likely not working for your particular child. I suggest trying a new approach and also looking for underlying reasons for their choice to not eat until bedtime. Maybe they are getting too many snacks late in the afternoon, or are crying out for attention because of something unrelated to food (maybe they're being bullied at school or miss their daddy), they may really not like the food you are serving and are holding out for bedtime snacky foods, or maybe something about family dinner causes them stress. Some children have sensory issues that make eating at the table difficult or too stimulating, and so they actually need quiet in order to eat. This Family Dinner Rule is simply what is currently working for our family, but every child and every family is unique.
Do you think this would work in your family? Why so?