You’ve done all that it takes to get your family to the table to eat – congratulations! That is no small feat, mama!
Except, you’re now faced with a child who’s melting down at mealtimes. There’s nothing like a mealtime meltdown that can disrupt your entire eating experience – am I right?
And while the occasional meltdown is inevitable (I mean, we all have our good days and bad days, right?), if this is something you’re regularly encountering with your child, there may be some things happening beneath the surface that are important to look at.
So let’s dive in and look at this a little closer: what might be causing your child’s meltdowns and mealtimes, and how can you help prevent them from happening in the first place?
Mealtime Meltdowns Aren’t Your Fault
First, right out of the gates, let me just say – these meltdowns are NOT your fault.
You might feel like you’re at your wits end, dealing with a child who’s refusing to eat, throwing things off the table, or pushing back on everything you might be asking. You may have a child who’s complaints about the food you’ve made have no end. You might be dealing with a child who’s demanding something different than what’s been offered at the table or who wants nothing to do with sitting at the table.
Whatever your individual situation might be, please know you’re not alone.
It’s also important to know there are likely a variety of factors at play – many which are largely out of your control.
While this might feel like an impossible situation to navigate, let me be the first to tell you that there is HOPE for change.
However, in order to create effective change in your home around food, it’s important to separate yourself from any self-blame you might be feeling.
You didn’t cause these struggles, mama.
Feeding a family day after day is HARD work, one that comes with a heavy mental load that no one was ever meant to carry alone. And no matter where you’re at, no amount of self-blame is going to make things any easier on you. Give yourself as much grace as you can muster through the process. It’s a journey we’re all learning from.
Try to look at your child’s behavior, not as a personal attack on you or any deficiency on your part as a parent, but rather, as a way they’re communicating.
Our children’s behavior is in fact communication, and when we can better understand what they’re trying to communicate to us through their meltdowns, you can learn how to respond more effectively.
With that being said, let’s examine some of the common contributors to mealtime struggles to help you see where you might be able to troubleshoot things in your own home.
What’s Causing Meltdowns and Mealtimes
One of the biggest reasons I see families getting stuck in power struggles with their children over food and at mealtimes usually has to do with this:
Children might feel like they don’t have a choice or say in the matter.
From what is being served, to what is being required to eat to what is expected of how a child should behave at mealtimes – there are quite a few demands being made of our kids when it comes to eating times.
Not to mention, we often come into eating experiences with our kids with our own set of expectations, which may not be realistic for our children to actually live up to.
While your own expectations for your children at mealtimes may be subconscious and not inherently bad per say, this can often play a role in shaping how you may be interacting with your kids around food.
Where this becomes sticky territory is when we try to mold our kids into doing things that may not be within their capabilities – especially at mealtimes.
For example, you might have a hidden agenda of wanting your child to eat certain foods from what you’ve offered; or, you might want to see your child eat a particular amount of food from what’s been served.
Again, these things are not inherently a bad thing. As a parent, it’s hard-wired into your DNA to feed your child and keep them alive.
However, when these agendas become the priority, it often comes at the expense of your child’s autonomy and agency over their own bodies.
This is important to understand, because the minute your child feels incapable of having control over their own bodies, they will push back on you.
This now becomes the prime breeding ground for power struggles and meltdowns, especially when a child feels loss of control over their abilities to make decisions about their own bodies.
While it may not seem like a big deal, the reality is when kids don’t feel like they get a say, especially in what goes into their mouths and their bodies, this will contribute to conflict at mealtimes.
When children feel like they’re losing control over their bodies, they’ll look for the things they can control – and usually that comes down to the food. They might be required to eat certain foods or take bites of their meals, but they’re likely going to fight you tooth and nail, which escalates into the meltdowns you may be experiencing.
And again, while there may be other factors at play that are connected to the meltdowns your child is experiencing at mealtimes, it’s critical to ask this question:
Does your child have a choice around food at mealtimes?
If not, this is likely the main culprit contributing to the meltdowns happening again and again at the family table.
The good news is that there are a myriad of different things you can do to help create choice for your child at mealtimes; thus, decreasing the triggers that incite conflict and power struggles. This is going to be especially true for the pickier eaters in your life, who seemingly disagree with everything you try to get them to eat.
5 Tips for Minimizing Meltdowns at Mealtimes
If kids feeling like they don’t have a choice at mealtimes is the number one contributor to meltdowns, what then can be done to create more choice for your children around food?
Contrary to popular belief, allowing your children choice and agency doesn’t mean that you don’t provide any structure or that you just let them now eat whatever they want, whenever they want.
This would also be counterproductive to the goal of raising intuitive eaters who have a healthy and positive relationship with food.
As a parent, you are still in charge.
This means, your kids still need you to do your jobs with feeding: to provide a flexible schedule around food, to reliably offer regular eating opportunities and take a leadership role when it comes to determining what you’re serving for meals and snacks.
These responsibilities shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of children, nor does this allow them to feel like they have more choice around food. Developmentally, this just isn’t yet in their wheelhouse of capabilities.
If we expected our kids to figure out what to eat at every meal or snack or didn’t provide routine and rhythms around food, this could make food feel even more chaotic for them.
Instead, you want to provide that flexible structure around food, and within those parameters, allow your child to execute choice and learn to flex their autonomy and independence.
Remember – feeding your kids is an extension of parenting.
You want to think about giving your child guidance and support but also allowing them to learn and make decisions within the structure and support you’re providing them.
This is essential with feeding, too.
So how does this look, especially at mealtimes, where allowing choice within structure is fundamental to nipping those meltdowns in the bud?
Here are some practical suggestions you can begin implementing in your home today:
1.Respect your child’s autonomy AND appetite:
We talked a little about what your jobs are as a parent when it comes to feeding your child. Did you know your children have their own jobs too when it comes to actually eating?
Within the flexible feeding structure you create, the ball now falls in your child’s court – where they are responsible for deciding the following things: 1) Whether or not they want to eat at any given eating opportunity you’ve provided, 2) What foods they want to eat from what you’ve made available, and 3) How much they want to eat from the foods you’ve provided.
Allowing your child to decide on these things at each eating experience is how YOU honor their autonomy from within the structure you’ve provided.
This means, you are no longer the food police or gatekeeper of what your child is eating at mealtimes. You aren’t responsible for micromanaging their food or trying to get them to eat – these are NOT your jobs with feeding, and if you try to cross over into this territory, you risk robbing your child of their individual autonomy and power of choice around food.
Implementing this strategy comes with the understanding that you have to lay down your own expectations of how or what you think your child should be eating in order to be respectful of their individual appetites and body’s needs.
When you can check your agendas and expectations at the door before sitting down to eat with your child and be willing to accept what they decide to eat from the foods you’ve provided, eating and mealtimes will go over much better for everyone – especially your child.
This takes a great deal of trust on your part, that even when your child doesn’t want to touch vegetables for the 15th day in a row or only eats bread from the dinner you’ve meticulously prepared, that you are choosing to respect their right to choose what they want to eat and honoring their appetite, no matter how differently it might look from your own expectations.
Remember, your child is the only person living in their body, and learning to self-regulate comes from allowing them to choose at each eating opportunity.
2. Allow a choice in food provided:
One of the main contributors to power struggles is when kids feel as though they don’t have a choice. Especially when it comes to food.
When kids don’t get to be part of the decision making that goes into meals, this can be a prime breeding ground for power struggles at mealtimes.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your child should dictate the menu on any given day. Kids still need their caregivers to take care of them and provide leadership when it comes to food.
Children don’t yet have the cognitive ability to put together a meal for themselves, and taking this responsibility is important to providing a framework for your kids, from which they can further develop their intuitive eating abilities.
But again, there’s a lot of nuance here. Sometimes, when deciding what foods will be offered to the family, there’s a hidden agenda interlaced, where parents may only provide foods they want their child to eat. OR, parents may feel like a short order cook and only provide foods they think their child will eat.
Each of these scenarios can prove to be frustrating for both parents and kids alike and make mealtimes a place where nobody wants to be.
So what can you do instead? How can you create a meal for your family that takes your child’s preferences into consideration? Well, that is exactly what you want to do.
You want to be considerate of your child’s preferences without necessarily catering to their every wish (because let’s be real – that is a surefire way to lose your sanity). Instead, decide on the overall meal you’d like to provide, and within that, allow your child to choose on ONE of the components provided.
This tends to work well for the starch components of the meal or any other preferred components .
So for example, you can decide on the other items you’re offering at a meal but ask your child to choose which they would prefer to eat: Pasta or Rice with dinner. Or would they like to have grapes or strawberries with breakfast?
When your child is given a choice on the meal items being provided, it allows them to feel like they have a say – like what they think is important, that their voice matters. Of course, you can accommodate this as needed for your kids, depending on their ages.
If you have multiple children, you can take a general consensus and decide based on the majority. Or you can simply rotate through your children for the different meals.
Making the effort to take their preferences into account for meals can build trust and respect, which is effective in decreasing meltdowns at mealtimes.
3. Start with empty plates at mealtimes:
So often when children are served a plate of food pre portioned for them, this can feel like pressure to the child.
The reason for this is because it completely eliminates your child from the decision making process, in terms of what goes on their plates, how much, etc.
Some children may feel overwhelmed by this, which can cause them to shut down before the meal even starts.
Having food on their plate they don’t want to eat or touch can be stressful for many children, which again, ignites a power struggle in their attempt to manage their own discomfort around the meal.
You can eliminate or decrease this by letting them start out the meal with an empty plate and allowing them to decide what they want to put on their plates from the food you’ve provided.
This also helps you relinquish some of the control you may be holding on to in effort to get them to eat certain foods or amounts. Again, these are not your jobs when it comes to feeding your kids.
Allowing them to self-serve from the foods you’ve provided can be a powerful way to support their self-regulation skills while also decreasing the stress at the table.
This approach generally works well for children, starting around age 3 or so. However, you can modify this approach to work with your family.
If it feels too challenging to let everyone self-serve, you can provide assistance to your children with serving, but ask their permission about what goes on their plates before plopping food on there.
For example: “I’m serving some of this pasta. Would you like me to put some on your plate? Okay, where would you like me to put it?”
In this way, you are respecting your child’s autonomy and not just assuming they want to eat all the food you’re putting on their plates (more than likely, they don’t want them).
For kids who are more selective eaters, in particular, having foods on their plates they don’t want or didn’t ask for can push ALL the power struggle buttons, especially if this is triggering their stress response at the table.
You can essentially eliminate this by letting THEM be the ones to decide what goes on their plate from the foods you’ve provided (without any judgment and with unconditional acceptance of their appetite and preferences).
4. Adjust how you transition into eating times:
For many kids, the transition from one activity to another can feel abrupt, especially when transitioning from an activity they’re enjoying to something which may feel less enjoyable, like eating.
Trying to get your child to come to the table can create the power struggle that makes the meltdown at mealtimes inevitable. Ideally, you want to look closer at how this is working in your family to see if any adjustments can be made to make this transition easier for you and your children.
And I get it – especially at the end of the day, you just want to get your kids fed and to bed, and everyone is running on fumes at this time of day.
It seems imminent to keep everyone on schedule and moving from one thing to the next. It’s just important to keep in mind that children in particular, may need more time and patience to transition from one activity to another, especially with mealtimes.
You can help ease the transition in a few ways:
Provide ample warning times that mealtime is coming to give your children a chance to conclude whatever they’re doing or working on. This can sound something like, “We’re going to be having family time at the table soon. Please take a few minutes to wrap up whatever you’re doing.” Of course, you can adjust as needed.
For younger children, you can provide a cue that play time is ending and meal time is starting by having a consistent ritual, like playing a certain song – the same song each time. This can help provide an external cue that allows them to transition from one activity to the next, while making it fun.
Try enlisting your child’s help with something around mealtime to help them make the transition. This could be helping with setting the table, putting out certain food items, etc. You can adjust this based on what works best for your child.
Be mindful of your language. Instead of saying, “It’s time to eat – you need to come sit at the table!”, try something like, “It’s time for family time at the table. We’d love for you to join us!” This can diffuse any pressure from the start of the meal, in terms of expectations for your child at mealtimes.
5. Adjust your own expectations for your child at mealtimes:
Lastly, it’s important to let go of any unrealistic expectations you may have for your child at mealtimes that may be making it harder for them to eat.
Sometimes, we subconsciously hold desires for our children that project in the way we feed and engage with them.
You may wish your child ate more or less, or maybe ate certain foods or behaved a certain way at the table. It’s normal to hold these expectations as a parent, and having these expectations certainly doesn’t make you a “bad” parent – it makes you human!
What may be helpful is being aware of what these expectations are and examining if these are evolving into “hidden agendas” that hurt the feeding relationship you’re building with your child.
If so, you can recalibrate as necessary to create more positive eating experiences for your whole family.
For example, if you would feel more comfortable with your child eating more at mealtimes, you may be subtly applying pressure for your child to eat at mealtimes, with verbal or non-verbal cues.
Kids pick up on this, and inevitably, push back on hidden agendas – often through the expression of meltdowns, which demonstrate their distress.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, you want to focus more on what needs to be done to build a trusting relationship with your child; that often requires letting go of hidden agendas and unrealistic expectations to create more positive outcomes at mealtimes.
Success at mealtimes is not measured in how many bites of broccoli your child eats but rather, in comfort and connection with your child around food (and other instances, too).
Supporting Your Child’s Healthiest Self
Our kids are better able to grow into their healthiest selves when they are afforded the opportunities to learn how to listen to their bodies, devoid of our desire to micromanage them into our own expectations.
As you practice more awareness about your expectations and how they play a role in your feeding approaches, consider the underlying fears that may be active.
Many parents worry their children will become “unhealthy” if not guided with what/how much to eat. Sometimes, relinquishing control can feel a lot like losing control. Here’s where it’s important to remember that you’re still in CHARGE as a parent (and rightfully need to be).
This is not the same thing as being in control of your child’s body, and at the end of the day, they are the only ones who can execute that right.
Kids have the innate body wisdom to self-regulate what they need from the foods you provide to support their bodies.
In order to listen to their bodies, they need a safe environment – one that supports and upholds their body autonomy. By staying in your lane, you are providing this opportunity for your children to have a positive relationship with food.
Now I’d love to hear from you! Which tip above will you try to start implementing in your own home to minimize those mealtime meltdowns?
If you need more help navigating mealtimes with your children to raise intuitive eaters, be sure to snag your free download below!
6 Phrases to Say to Your Kids to Raise Intuitive Eaters and End Mealtime Battles