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Answering Real Moms’ Family Dinner Questions

Posted on: May 21st, 2015 by Bri DeRosa

Last month, our Executive Director, Lynn Barendsen, had the opportunity to speak to the Quincy, MA chapter of MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) about family dinner routines. Interwoven with the pleasantries and laughter, there were some serious and pressing questions coming her way; these mothers of preschoolers, like many other parents we’ve heard from, have real dilemmas on their plates when  it comes to family dinner (pun intended). Since so many of their questions and concerns are common to families everywhere, we’re answering a few here.

My two-year-old strongly prefers sitting on my lap during dinner as opposed to her high chair. I think it is partly because she sees her Dad and I sitting in chairs and so I have considered a booster seat, but without the tray it would be quite the mess. With that being said, when she is on my lap, it is very messy, as well as difficult for me to eat my meal. The benefit of her sitting on my lap is she eats more of her food before wanting to leave the table. So do I hold an expectation that she sits in her high chair? Try a switch to a booster seat? Or embrace the mess and extra cuddle time while I try to eat my own dinner?

Bravo on gathering your family around the dinner table and sharing a meal together – that, in and of itself, is an accomplishment on some nights! Knowing when and how to make the  transition to a “big kid booster” is something many parents struggle with, especially since (like the “big-girl bed”) a different seating arrangement brings different parenting questions and boundaries that have to be introduced.
It does sound as though your daughter is ready for a change, and by the age of two, many kids are ready to be pulled up to the family table. You’ve correctly noted that having her in your lap is messy and difficult, extra cuddles or no. It’s also not a sustainable arrangement — lap-sitting for meals isn’t something you can continue as children get bigger, and it doesn’t help them learn how to manage their own dinner table behavior and eating habits. The switch to a booster can be made less messy by putting down a drop cloth around the child’s seating area to catch spilled food, and washable vinyl placemats can protect the table. However, be prepared: At this age, your daughter may not want to sit for very long and may not eat as much of the meal as you think she should. That’s normal behavior! Don’t force her to sit for a defined period of time or to eat a set amount. Toddlers may not sit for longer than 5-10 minutes, and that’s okay. Check out some more tips for managing toddler “sitting behavior” on our FAQs page.

Is it wrong to reward good eating with dessert or other treats? I would love my kids to eat well every night, and sweets motivate them, but I don’t want to set them up with bad habits of needing or expecting a sweet treat after every meal!

We’ve all been there! It’s tempting to take the “short view” in feeding kids, which looks like this: “If my child eats his vegetables tonight, then he’s well-nourished and has good eating habits.” But building good habits is a marathon, not a sprint. Most kids vary in their appetites, desires, and willingness to eat certain foods depending on the day — and if we’re honest, even adults feel that way sometimes. Research has actually shown that when kids are bribed or rewarded with sweets for eating healthy foods, over time the healthy foods become less and less desirable. That means that a “reward” system for good habits in the short term can end up backfiring on you by making your kids into less healthy eaters in the long run! As much as it may seem counterintuitive, if you’re serving dessert at your house on any given evening, a small portion of it should be available to every member of the family, regardless of how “well” they have eaten their dinner. As to building good eating habits and making sure they eat their healthy foods, continue serving a wide variety of healthy options at every meal and snack, and look at kids’ eating habits over a week or a month instead of day-by-day. They’re probably doing better than you think.

I have heard recently that the whole “Clean Your Plate” mentality can be detrimental for kids and lead to overeating and issues with food as adults. We have been doing that since our kids were toddlers and they always finish their plates now. That being said, we make sure to make portions that are appropriate for our kids. Is this a habit we should stop now? If so, I am not sure how to approach dinners because I don’t think I can negotiate how many bites they need to take of vegetables each meal!

“Clean Your Plate” is a hard habit to let go of, since so many of us grew up that way! But yes, it’s true that enforcing a household rule that family members must finish all the food served to them undermines kids’ natural abilities to listen to their own internal cues of hunger and fullness, which leads them to learn a pattern of “eating with their eyes” instead of eating only as much as they need to be healthy. Stopping the habit doesn’t have to mean negotiating bites, though!
Remember: As a parent, you are in charge of what is served and when. Your children are in charge of how much to eat. When they are done, they’re done! It will be a hard mental shift for you, but saying nothing about the quantity of food they eat will help keep things peaceful and help them to find their own healthy balance over time. If you’re really concerned that they will never touch a vegetable without the “clean plate mandate,” you might try a strategy such as serving only one bite of each item at the start of the meal so they can taste everything, then allowing them to take more as their appetites dictate. And if they start asking “how many more bites?” try turning it around to them: “How many more bites do you think your tummy wants?” There are bound to be some missteps at first and they may find they’re hungry later in the beginning, but be consistent. Eventually your whole family will find the right balance for each individual appetite!

We heard many more great questions from the MOPS group, which we’ll be answering in a second article next week. Stay tuned!