Has this ever happened to you?

  1. You plan a meal that you think your child will like.
  2. You take the time to cook the meal.
  3. You even think about a creative way to present the meal.
  4. Mealtime: Your child eats little to nothing and asks for a snack 20 minutes later.

I can honestly say that this situation describes dinner in my household several times a week. It is frustrating, and I often wonder what I could be doing differently to get more food into tummies and less into the compost pile. But let it be known, I am not throwing in the towel, and I don’t think you should either. Many of us share these age-appropriate feeding challenges, yet we often feel like our children are the only ones refusing to eat. Reminder: you are not alone, and you are doing a great job by offering your children healthy and new foods – whether they get eaten or not. Today’s post comes from my wonderful dietetic intern, Sarah, mother-of-three.  Sarah shares four strategies she uses in her family to keep her kiddos lingering at the table for at least one minute more. Are your kids eating their dinner? If so, please share what works for you!

1. Stand firm on no snacking one hour before meals.

Children, especially younger children, do not require a lot of food to fill them up. If you allow them to eat crackers while waiting for dinner at a restaurant or snack at home right up until dinner, they will very likely not have an appetite to eat. Plan ahead with a portable snack on the way home from school or daycare to ensure you have an hour between snack time and meal time. Keep an activity bag in the vehicle to entertain kids while waiting for food in restaurants. Busy hands and minds are much less likely to be whining for a snack.

2. Re-think post dinner snack time.

Is it possible your child knows that they can skimp on dinner because better things are coming? Many times, we offer after-dinner snacks because we fear that our child didn’t eat enough at dinner. If this becomes a pattern, we train our children to expect this snack and maybe reject what is offered at mealtime. If you consistently give a snack after dinner, you might consider pushing back the time of post-dinner snacks or occasionally leaving out the snack altogether. If dinner is at 6 pm and a snack is offered at 6:30 pm, most children can easily wait it out. However, if snack time is skipped or isn’t given until 8 pm, you might find them eating more at mealtime.

3. Get children involved in dinner time choices.

Let you child choose. When children feel like they have a choice, they are much more likely to eat. You can provide a list of 2-3 vegetable or fruit options and allow them to pick the fruit or vegetable for that meal. For older children, you can allow them to plan the meal for the night, complete with recipes and hands-on cooking. Check out this list of kitchen appropriate tasks by age.

4. Make mealtime fun.

Put salad components on a skewer and drizzle with dressing to make the salad more interesting. Provide dips in moderation if that encourages your child to eat a particular food. Place food on special plates, have a picnic outside, or light candles at dinner.  Young children love pretending!

Take some time a couple nights a week and enjoy a meal as a family. Not only does this encourage healthy eating by allowing them to model your healthy habits, but it provides a great place to communicate, share successes and challenges of the day, and bond as a family!

Blog post contribution by Sarah Mae Volling, Dietetic Intern, Fontbonne University

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.