Question & Answer - Feeding, Eating, & Drinking
How do parents manage mealtime mayhem?By Christian Hancock, MS, CCC-SLP in Texas, USA
Parents of young children likely know the stress mealtimes can create. Many caregivers tell me it’s the hardest part of their day, and I agree - mealtime certainly has its challenges. As a speech-language pathologist who supports patients with feeding disorders and families struggling with difficult behaviors, I’ve come to believe a big part of the mealtime mayhem is misconnection.
As a parent myself, I know this takes practice. I should’ve known my toddler was finished when he stopped eating his breakfast, but I wasn’t paying attention. So, he tried to tell me again by pushing his plate away. When I still missed his point, he threw his food, stood in his chair, and ran from the table, leaving a trail of scrambled eggs. Have you ever tried cleaning up scrambled eggs? I immediately felt angry, annoyed, and began to think “I can’t let him get away with that!” But then, I reflected on his behaviors – he did try to tell me! His behaviors were literally screaming “I’M TRYING TO TELL YOU I’M FINISHED, LADY!!” I had fair warning food was going to fly, but I wasn’t connected to him in that moment and I certainly didn’t respect his needs.
Caregivers can improve their interactions with children and prepare the child’s environment to foster deeper connection using these strategies at mealtime. Here are some ideas:
-Give your child attention during meals
Imagine being at a dinner party with people who don’t include you in their conversations. It can feel pretty isolating. You probably won’t enjoy your meal and may even leave early. Meals as a family are special because it’s not just about eating, it’s about connection too. Children and caregivers can begin to look forward to time together sharing a meal, instead of dreading it.
-Allow choices for independence
Children often don’t have much control over mealtimes that can lead to undesired behaviors and stress. It’s important for children to practice independence and have opportunities to learn and listen to their bodies with caregivers who respect the child’s voice. Having access to appropriate seating, choosing how much they want to eat from what’s served, selecting their utensils, and determining when they are finished eating are all reasonable and age-appropriate choices for toddlers.
-Be confident, clear, and consistent in setting boundaries
Families who don’t enjoy meals with their children are likely over-invested in their child’s eating or feel uncomfortable setting boundaries. The truth is, being confident in your expectations of behavior shows kindness to your child who needs to feel secure in his or her role at the table. Children understand what they are expected to do and often are more able to self-regulate their behaviors when they have a consistent routine.
-Trust your child
Of course, we want our children to be healthy, and feeding your child can be emotional because of that. It’s a delicate balance, and we must be careful to allow children the autonomy to learn what their body needs without our pressure. It can be scary to let go of the control around your child’s eating and trust them to know their little body, but when given the chance, they can step up to the plate.
-Be calm and matter-of-fact about your child’s eating
Our children’s choice to eat (how much, if any) is simply not about us. Our job is to prepare the environment for positive experiences with food and mealtime routines. Their job is to listen to their body. This shows respect for our children and sets the foundation for a positive relationship.
When we respond with kindness and empathy, set consistent expectations, and trust our children. Then we show respect to our children and are more able to create connection at mealtime.
Phillips, D.P. & Shonkoff, J.P. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: the science of early childhood development. National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK225548
About the Author
Christian Hancock is a speech-language pathologist and parent coach, and owner of Heart & Soul Speech in McKinney, Texas. She serves families at home, offering routine-based language intervention, feeding therapy, and support for challenging behaviors. She is the creator of Communication with Connection, a philosophy and practice that empowers families with ways to develop language and build relationships through simple everyday moments. Stay in touch with Christian at www.heartandsoulspeech.com and on Instagram @heart_soul_speech