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The New Rules for Mealtimes: Ending Kid Battles

The mealtime battles have been intense around my house recently. So many meals begin with grumbles instead of gratitude. A dish loved one day is hated the next, then third day it becomes OK again. Plates get over-loaded with food and then it gets trashed. One child seemed to be subsisting on air (ok, fruit) with a negative impact on behavior. Of course, a kid is going to be crazy with fructose hyping the system but no protein to make those nutrients stick. Mealtime questioning, crying, and negotiation was taking over. (I think that last one is the worst for kid and parent alike. It dominates the meal for the adult, gives the child all sorts of attention for a behavior we don’t want to see more of; and it makes food a power struggle rather than about nourishment, enjoyment, and respecting feelings of satiety–not over-full.) One week I decided just to make whatever I wanted even if everyone else hated it because they were going to gripe about it any way. No surprise, but that didn’t actually fix anything.

End Kid Food Battles


Hubby and I found ourselves repeating certain mealtime platitudes endlessly, only to realize we were applying them in different ways. “Eat the food you have before getting new food” works differently when a kid serves himself versus when a parent scoops up adult-sized portions. And, how many meals should leftovers be re-offered for anyway? As a family that rarely has dessert, do we expect clean plates first or do we just eat the beet brownies whenever, however on those few occasions? With all of these questions, and so much frustration, the family decided that we should sit down and come up with some rules together.  Coming up with a morning routine recently has been helpful (despite a rough start), so we figured we’d formalize our mealtime guidelines, too. Here they are!

  1. The food on the table is what’s for breakfast/lunch/dinner. (But, you may ask about additional sauces and condiments.)
  2. Each person should serve themselves and decide on portion size. Guidelines: Serve yourself at least one thank you bite (forkful) of each main course and side dish. (Condiments are optional.) Serve yourself the amount you think you will eat during this meal (but start with a single portion if it so everyone can have some).
  3. Eat the food you have before you get more food.
  4. Still hungry? Serve seconds in the portion that you think you will eat during this meal. (Chef may restrict amounts so that others can have more or so there are leftovers.)
  5. Still hungry? Serve yourself hummus and vegetables from the refrigerator.
  6. Not interested in eating any more? Ask to be excused and clear your place. (Plates with food go to the refrigerator. Empty plates go to the counter.)
  7. What happens to leftovers? Breakfast leftovers are the first thing to eat at morning snack. Lunch leftovers are the first thing to eat at afternoon snack. Dinner leftovers are the first thing to eat at next day’s lunch. (After that second offering, uneaten food can be thrown away.)

 We decided that chefs (often adults, but sometimes kids) have some duties, too: 

Chefs honor allergies and sensitivities.
Chefs keep preferences in mind but
…prepare a variety of flavors and items because taste buds are always changing.
…prepare a variety of nutrients to help our bodies be strong and healthy.


Here is the processing behind some of these:

  • “The food on the table is what’s for dinner.”  It is a great response for so many questions. “Mom, can I have pizza?” “What else are we having?” “I don’t like xyz.”  I respond with this phrase, and just this phrase, in an upbeat, kind tone. It’s not meant to be dismissive, it’s mean to be clarifying.  Because of our chef rules, there should be something that someone can fill their belly at for every meal, even if that is only slivered almonds and raisins from the salad topping selection. Now, we aim for there to be something substantial that each person won’t detest (and hopefully likes) but when a kid suddenly hates a favorite (as has happened), that can lead to hunger for a meal, but that’s just how we’ve decided to let this ride. 
  • The portion size thing is a dance between too little and too much. Our guacamole-lover has been known to take half of the container for himself before anyone notices. On the other side of the spectrum, thank you bites honor the fact that our taste buds are always changing and to show gratitude to the chef.
  • More on thank you bites: A forkful is enough to actually get the flavor and texture, but not so much that you are in lengthy misery if you dislike the item. While we do insist on the bite-sized portion making it on the plate, whether the child actually eats it is up to him. (Forcing the child to sit there until they eat it only gets back into power struggle territory.) However, the other major rule still applies which is…
  • “Eat the food you have before you get more food.” This is another phrase I repeat a lot in a friendly, clarifying tone. This saying takes most of the battle out of the seconds and dessert question. It paces a child down from eating every sweet potato fry before anyone else can get more since the whole plate of food must be eaten, not just the one favorite item.  If the thank you bite (or whatever else) remains on the plate, that’s the kid’s choice, but it does mean that refilling the plate is not an option.  When it comes to desserts, this phrase may sound like the overfull, guilt-based “clean plate club” my grandparents enforced (there are starving children in the world, don’t you know). But, that’s not my aim.  The intent here is not about making anyone overfull to “earn” dessert. It’s about thoughtful consumption–something that we aim to tie into all areas of our life. It’s also about not hoarding food for yourself just so someone else can’t have it. (See my guacamole story above. Do your kids do this, too?)  P.S. The 20-month doesn’t have to follow this rule. Having a baby screaming and signing frantically “more, more” through the whole meal doesn’t help anyone. While he does eat only from what’s on the table, he gets prompt refills of individual items within reason. 
  • About kids serving themselves: Our toddler isn’t serving himself yet, but the other boys (4 and 6) can. In the case that I serve an item to a child, he has to approve the portion so that ownership element is still there. Serving themselves gives kids ownership of the amount of food they are responsible for eating. It also lets them decide what is worth filling up on. Before this rule, I caught myself serving a child a tiny amount of a vegetable not wanting it to be wasted only to realize that sends a  “I expect you to not like this” vibe.  When they decide on quantity, they decide what foods to bulk up on without my preconceived notions. We’ve had some happy surprises as a result.
  • Seconds don’t have to include every food again, and this is when the preferred food at the table can be consumed enough to actually fill a belly. However, since we are a family that relies on leftovers, we decided to add hummus and vegetables as a self-serve option when we need to limit quantities of the meal food. We agreed that the person who wants this extra food is the one responsible for getting up to get it as well as all supplies needed (like a knife and cutting board). I know some families who offer sandwiches or fruit in this way. We went with the food group that we do not usually get in enough of. I expect the 6 year old to cut his own vegetables (with supervision) since he has been working on knife skills for several years now. The 4 year old still needs help. 

So far, it’s gone well. We’ve had a few compromises (like excusing tough broccoli stems left behind) and a few tears (child took too much of a food he didn’t like and did not get to eat apples with chocolate for dessert at the exact same time as his brother ).  I am figuring our what to do for packed lunches since I like to knock those out quickly and give everyone the same thing in their bento-style LunchBots* boxes.  Overall, the consistency between parents and meals has been very helpful, though  I do still need to post the list in the dining room so we can all see it and refer to it as time goes on. 

What works for your family? What changes would you make to my list? Did we miss anything? How does the size of your family, special needs, or other circumstances impact how meals work at your house? 

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About More Green for Less Green

Hi, I’m Pamm. Welcome to my little slice of the web! As a progressive Evangelical female pastor and crunchy homeschooling mom, I’m never quite what anyone expects of me. But, hey, that’s what makes blogging interesting, right? Join me as I try to wholeheartedly parent my three little boys, slowly fix up the trashed foreclosure we bought in 2009, and live simply.

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