Intro from Dr. Carr: Many parents of toddlers, preschoolers and even school-aged children who seek my help with their children’s sleep describe difficult evenings with lots of false starts on the road to bedtime. One of their biggest roadblocks can be dinnertime. Often parents are so concerned with whether their child is eating enough, or enough of the right kinds of food, that dinner becomes a prolonged battle from which parents emerge weary and ill-equipped to carry out an effective bedtime routine.
That’s why I sought out child feeding expert Jill Castle to help provide some guidance on minimizing mealtime battles in order to help pave the way for a smoother bedtime. Jill’s approach of balancing responsibility between parent and child around mealtime also very nicely mirrors much of the guidance I give to my clients around sleep. Enjoy!
Nix the Mealtime Drama with this Simple Change
By Jill Castle, MS, RDN
I started out feeding my brood the way most parents do—dishing up the food on the plate and putting it
front of each child. The expectation I had was that they would eat what I selected for them and eat most of
the portion. My kids did pretty well with this for a long time. I think I did a good job of knowing how to
balance their meals with the important food groups, and I also knew how much little people needed in
terms of serving sizes. I am a registered dietitian, after all, and it’s my business to know these things. But
somewhere along the way, I started to notice that my husband and I were egging our kids on to do better
with eating. “Oh, just take one more bite of your veggie, meat, or sip of milk…” I am not really sure how we
“got there”—suggesting, pushing, wanting them to eat more or try something new and feeling the need to
push them along. The irony was: the more we wanted them to eat more or take a bite of something, the
less interested in doing so they became.
And then it hit me. We were slowly but surely heading down the wrong path with feeding our kids. I
needed to change up the dynamic at the dinner table. I knew they could make healthy choices. After all, I
had raised them with all kinds of food. And, I knew they could manage deciding how much food to take.
Even if they took too much, or not enough, wasn’t that part of the learning curve?
So, when my four children were 4, 6, 7, and 9 years, I made the switch to family-style meals, and I’ve never
looked back. I’ll never forget my middle daughter’s statement after a week of serving family meals our new
way, “Mom, are we going to have a smorgasbord every night?!”
My kids are just like any other kid. They have their food preferences and their dislikes. Sometimes they
love dinner and eat a lot, and sometimes they don’t. They don’t like everything I serve, but they tolerate the
company of a variety of foods on the table, whether they choose to eat them or not.
So, instead of plating each meal for each kid, I now set the menu items in the center of the table. We pass
around each meal item, and each person serves himself. I expect manners when my kids refuse an item,
and I don’t make alternative meals. I do, however, make sure there are one or two items in the meal that
they like. This is often milk, fruit or bread.
If you’re a “food plater,” here are a few things to think about:
• The control is in your hands, not your child’s. This means you are making the decisions on what he will
eat, and how much. Research tells us that children do better with eating when they have a say in what
they eat, or in other words, are given reasonable choice.
• Plating the food for your child does not teach him how to make food choices, nor does it teach him about
his appetite or how much food he needs to eat to satisfy it. To be a healthy adult eater, kids need to learn
about their appetite and how much food is right for them, and this is something that is different for
everyone. If parents are always in charge of this aspect of eating, kids have a hard time learning this.
• Food is often the topic of control and struggles. When children are seeking control over their lives
(whatever that may be), they may turn to food as an item to control. In extreme cases, this is seen in the
child or teen with an eating disorder. I’ve seen many children do better with shifting the food control from
the parent to the child. This is not to say that parents should relinquish control of the meal. They
shouldn’t! Parents decide what is on the menu (food), when it is served, and where meals happen. Kids
decide what they will eat based on what is served, and how much. This is called The Division of
Responsibility, coined by Ellyn Satter.
• Studies show that parents may over-estimate portions for children, which may encourage children to eat
too much, and learn to overeat in the long run.
• Mealtimes are supposed to be about connection and family bonding, not who is eating what and how
much, or how well kids are performing in the eating department. When family meals become a
battleground, or simply an unpleasant experience, it’s time to change things up.
Even very young children can participate in family meals! Of course, they can’t pass bowls and platters
around and serve themselves, but you can execute the beginnings of family-style meals by asking
questions that allow children to guide how much is placed on their plate. For example, “let me know when
to stop,” or “is it OK if I put some peas on your plate?” Both of these questions allow the toddler some
When the toddler shows you he wants to do things himself, allow him to practice handling the serving
spoon while the parent holds the bowl or platter of food. In fact, anyway that you can start to give your
child a voice, an opinion, and an opportunity to do it himself will help him move toward self-serving. By
age 5, most children can pass bowls, platters and serve their own food.
Have you tried family-style meals at your home? How did it go?
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (www.fearlessfeeding.com). She is the creator of Just The Right Byte (www.justtherightbyte.com), a childhood nutrition blog. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT.
Questions? Contact her at Jill@JillCastle.com.
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