Managing the Mealtime Madness

By Jen Lindbeck

Have you heard about Parent Café? Parent Café is every Friday from 11:30-12:30pm at Anna Marie’s Bakery in Mount Vernon. Janna, a home visiting nurse with Nurse Family Partnership, and I, meet with pregnant moms and parents with young kids.

The great thing about these gatherings is the questions that parents ask, everything from sleep to nutrition to child care. Between the two of us, we can answer lots of these questions or point families toward some of the amazing resources that are available in our community.

The nutrition question was such a good question, Janna and I decided that the information was worth sharing.

Do you have a young child who is just starting to feed themselves? A picky eater? A grazer? Do you worry that they may not be getting the nutrition they need? Mealtimes can be challenging. Here are some tips and research to get you through the feeding frenzy.

Jen with Mealtime Tips

Create a routine and rituals around mealtime. If you can, eat around the same times every day. Kids thrive with routines because they know what to expect and when to expect it. Routines are comforting. Begin each meal with a song, share something you are grateful for, say a prayer, talk about one thing you are looking forward to today, or discuss high and lows from the day. Start these rituals when your child is able to sit in a high chair. It may seem silly to do when your kid isn’t even really talking yet, but not only are you creating a ritual which builds social emotional skills, you are also building vocabulary skills as well.

The mom who asked the nutrition question had a busy 9-month-old. He didn’t want to sit and eat and mom felt frazzled trying to chase him down to get food in to his mouth. Model the behavior that you want your child to do. This ties nicely into routines and rituals, and requires that you join your child at the table and eat with them. I would also suggest a no electronics rule at the table – set your phone down, turn off the television. It will take time, but eventually your child will begin to mirror your table manners (to some extent, they are still kids after all).

When my son was around three he became the pickiest eater on the planet. There were five things he would eat. If you have a picky eater, encourage exploration. I would ask both my students and my own kids to take an “adventure bite” or a “no thank you bite”. The rule was, you can’t say you don’t like something if you have not tried it. Sometimes they discover something new that they actually enjoy… and sometimes they spit it out on the plate.

The good news is, your picky eater or busy kiddo can be “trained” to try new things and get the nutrition they need. Janna explains…

Janna on the Research

When it comes to our children, they are born with a preference for sweet and salty, which means they need a little bit of “training” to accept a wide variety of tastes. Especially when it comes to vegetables that can sometimes be a bit bitter. It’s our job as the parents to provide them with as many chances as possible to broaden their taste bud horizons. This means offering a rainbow of fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains and dairy every day (Fox MK, Devaney B, Reidy K, Razafindrakoto C, Ziegler P). You might offer your child broccoli with dinner one night every week for months and it is met with disgust, until suddenly they decide they like it. Research shows it can take upwards of 15-20 times of exposure before a child decides they like something (Birch LL). And then again, they might decide they don’t like it for years.

As a parent, it isn’t our job to force food into our kids, as the Dietician, Ellyn Satter says in her book, Child of Mine; Feeding with Love and Good Sense. Our job is to provide nutrient dense food choices, and our kid’s job is to decide what and how much to eat. By nutrient dense this means focusing on foods that come in their “whole” form as much as possible, such as fruits and vegetables, and limiting things that are processed such as crackers and things with added sugar. Since we all live in the real world, we know a goldfish cracker will happen here and there. We don’t need to be perfect, just good enough.

The good news is the best thing we can do is model these behaviors for our children, and studies show that children’s intake of fruits, vegetables and milk went up from simply watching adults eat and drink these foods (Birch LL). No fighting necessary! As long as your child is meeting their milestones and growing steadily based on their growth chart, you can rest assured your job is just to provide variety, structure with mealtimes, and model good eating habits, but of course always check with your child’s Pediatrician for any questions or concerns you may have (Fox MK, Devaney B, Reidy K, Razafindrakoto C, Ziegler P).

Start Small

Life is busy, and it may not be possible to schedule regular meal times, eat with your kids, or eat a variety of colorful foods. Start small – with one meal a week. As your kids get older some of your best conversations and learning moments will happen at meal times. You will have built a routine that may have started out as a practical necessity for survival but has evolved in to a family tradition where everyone enjoys spending time with each other, even if it is just for 20 minutes.

Join Janna and me for Parent Café on Fridays from 11:30-12:30pm at Anna Marie’s Bakery in Mount Vernon, your question might be featured in the next blog!


Birch LL. Effects of peer models food choices and eating behaviors on preschool’s food preference. Child Development. 1980; 489-496

Fox MK, Devaney B, Reidy K, Razafindrakoto C, Ziegler P. Relationship between portion size and energy intake among infants and toddlers: evidence of self regulation. J Am Diet Assoc. 2000: 106

Jen Lindbeck has a M.Ed., Early Childhood Education, Curriculum and Instruction from Arizona State University and is the Early Learning Resource Coordinator for United Way of Skagit County.
Janna Uffelman is a registered nurse with Nurse Family Partnership, Skagit County Public Health.


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