Getting Kids to the Dinner Table: What is the parent's job?

Nov 13, 2009 by

The proper attitude for parents at the dinner table (and a lot of other places) is “engrasa y aprieta,” a Spanish expression meaning literally to grease and to tighten.

A balance of both greasing and tightening is generally needed to successfully bring order out of chaos in your family meals.

If you are joyless and grim about what, where, when and how much your kids eat, you need to lighten up.  Make it fun, make it delicious. If on the other hand, you are haphazard and careless about how, when and what they eat, you need to tighten up.

Bringing in some structure requires discipline on the part of parents and children, but maybe not in the ways you might think.

Knowing when to grease and when to tighten is easier if you know what your job is a parent and what is the children’s, with the labor clearly divided.

The parent’s job description:


  1. Be in charge.
  2. Plan ahead and be prepared.
  3. Serve only foods you want your child to eat.
  4. Serve meals regularly at around the same time.
  5. Set a nice table, and serve attractive, fragrant, tasty dishes.
  6. Aim for an atmosphere of calm and peace.
  7. Orchestrate hunger by restricting eating to certain times.  Leverage their appetites to motivate eating and cooperation.

Don’t :

  1. Back off about proper behavior and manners.
  2. Don’t offer alternatives if your child doesn’t want to eat what’s served. He’ll be all the more open-minded next meal.
  3. Don’t say anything about how much or what they eat.  Enjoy your own meal and let them alone about their eating.
  4. Don’t allow random snacking between meals.  Hunger and anticipation increase interest in meals.
  5. Don’t introduce change as a grim and dreadful reform you’ve instituted for their good.
  6. Don’t tell them what you’re up to.  Just start doing it cheerfully.
  7. Don’t go in expecting a fight.
  8. Don’t air your anxieties and insecurity. Project confidence.

Where tightness is in order:

  1. Plan, shop and cook consistently. The more you are cooking appealing meals and serving them regularly, the more kids will come to expect it and anticipate it.
  2. Insist on everybody sitting at the table and behaving civilly.  Establishing habits takes some time and persistence, but it’s worth it.

Where looseness is best:

  1. Let kids be increasingly in charge of their own eating as much as possible–serving themselves, feeding themselves–according to their age. Never urge them to eat anything.
  2. Make meals pleasant, interesting and affirming for children (without praising or rewarding for eating, or using food as a reward).

Related posts:

How to Get Kids to Come to the Dinner Table, Part III

How to Use “Negative Reverse Selling” Techniques at the Dinner Table