The heart and soul of teaching children is providing structure. Structure doesn’t mean being rigid and taking away fun, but it does mean providing children with a routine that they can expect and count on happening for them each day. Meal time structure is a crucial part of teaching children to be successful eaters.
What is meal time structure?
Structure indicates your child’s feeding schedule and their surroundings during mealtimes. It is the WHEN and WHERE feeding occurs for your family. The time that each family eats, the WHEN, varies greatly based on lifestyle, work schedules and sibling schedules too. It’s important to look at your family’s schedule and decide which times are going to allow you to reach the goal of having your child eat three age-appropriate sized meals and two snacks each day. Planned meal times (that have some flexibility when needed) are recommended for children over all day grazing. Spacing out meals allows your child’s body to get hungry for the next meal and helps to teach them to associate healthy eating with satiation (feeling full). That way, your child learns to read their own body’s cues that tell them when it’s time to eat.
WHERE your child eats is equally important as when they eat. Children can’t focus their attention on the task of eating if they are walking around the room or simultaneously playing or watching television. The goal is to set a consistent place that you child returns to each day, for each meal, where you place the focus on eating. Ideally, your child should be sitting in a chair at the table during meals. If sitting in a chair is difficult for your child, consider having them work up to it gradually starting with 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, etc. Using a timer to signal to your child when they can leave their seat helps to reinforce learning with an auditory cue and takes the focus off of Mom and Dad. Be sure to celebrate their successes, even small ones!
If you have a child that likes to flee the table mid-meal, its a good idea to consider a booster seat with a lap belt. Talk to your child and help your child to set realistic meal time eating goals and then place them “in charge” of what they choose to eat in order to get down (i.e. “You can get down after 3 bites of meat and 2 bites of vegetables, which one are you going to choose next?”)
Meal time is meant for eating. When you allow toys at the table, it sabotages your meal time goal. If your child is having a difficult time transitioning from play time to the table allow them to choose one toy that they can bring to the table “to watch them eat.” The toy should be positioned so that your child can happily see the toy, but is unable to reach it. The idea is to let the toy serve as a visual reminder that they can play after they’ve finished eating. Coach them that you need them to “show” or “teach” their toy how to eat by providing an example, (i.e. “Your train can not wait to see how you can eat that piece of broccoli!” or “Wow, your train is getting so excited that you are almost finished eating!”
Meal time structure can still exist when life gets busy. When you are traveling or need to eat “on the go” with your family, there are still ways that you can avoid distractions and incorporate your structured routine into any setting to reduce unwanted meal time refusals. Traveling with a special place mat, utensil(s) or bib provides a visual cue to keep your meal time on track and signals to your child that it is time to eat.
Why is providing structure important?
Children learn best by repetition and consistency. They learn what to expect from us and what is expected of them. Keeping your meal time environment consistent, stimulating and interesting will be the keys to helping your child be a successful eater and meeting their nutritional needs.
How to provide structure at mealtimes:
- Schedule 3 meals a day at almost the same time each day.
- Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks are important.
- All day snacking is not recommended. If your children are not hungry your meal times are sabotaged.
- Let your child be meal time helpers. Find examples of jobs that you can give them here.
- Your child should be seated in a chair at a table while eating with very few distractions.
- Set a rule of no playing during meal times. If a toy makes it to your table, be sure that it is there with purpose to help your goal and not to hurt it.
Children learn best when eating is the same every single day – be consistent, but make meal times fun too!