How to get kids to eat at the table, Part II: Lindsey's question

Apr 3, 2010 by

In response to my previous post, “How to get kids to eat at the table,” a reader named Lindsey asked the following question:

“What if I’ve been doing all you listed above since my children (now 6 and 4) were babies, and they still don’t eat what’s put in front of them?

It’s not that they’re not hungry or that they don’t like what I make. They poke their way through each meal, sometimes playing (even when asked to stop), my son will turn his nose up at things, but we require him to taste everything. They dawdle, and my husband and I always finish every meal way before they do.

I feel as though I’ve tried everything. Do you have any suggestions for that? Other than that, I enjoy your posts, and thank you for all your insight.

Lindsey , Thanks for your excellent question! It really set me thinking.

The first question I would ask is: are your kids hungry at meal time? Maybe their snack schedule or snack menu needs to be adjusted?

If that’s not it, without knowing what else you have or haven’t already tried, I have three main thoughts in response to what you’ve said.

First, it sounds to me like your children have found a way to get your attention. They’re messing with you, I’m afraid. You keep letting them do what they’re doing and they keep doing it. It’s working for them in some way, if not for you.

There are better ways for them to get their need for your attention met, though. What is the atmosphere at your table like? Do you carry on pleasant conversation—not on the subject of the children’s eating—that includes them or focuses on them? Do you tell them stories and let them tell you stories at the table? Do you listen to them? Really listen? Do you have a good time together?

Is there a reason you and your husband are in a hurry at the table? The kids apparently want to draw out this time with you, even if it’s negative attention they’re getting. Time spent around the table should be enjoyable and sociable, a place of building the relationships with your kids. If instead it’s usually just a time to fill the tummies and move on to the next thing, your kids’ behavior may be a reaction to that.

Next, it is perfectly right and good to set behavior limits at the table. Eating and table behavior training go beautifully hand-in-hand if we leverage them against each other calmly, consistently and confidently.

Are you more worried about their eating than they are? If you are, they know it. As long as you’re worried, they have no reason to be. They seem to be using that against you.

If you don’t want them to play around at the table, for example, and they do anyway, send them away from the table and to their rooms and don’t let them come back at all that evening. Don’t let them finish their dinner if they won’t do as you ask. Don’t bail them out with a snack later. Hunger is your number one tool. Not getting to stay at the table is a natural consequence and hunger is an even more natural one. Stick to your guns and they will learn.

If you see they’re dawdling just to get your goat in spite of giving them full and loving attention, it may just be a bad habit that needs breaking. Whatever the reaons, you can tell them that you are going to clear the table after a certain time, then do it. If they ask why, tell them you have other things to do and dinner is taking too long. Offering a better alternative to dragging out dinner, like reading a book together or playing a game, will probably light a fire under them, too, while meeting their need for relationship with you.

I suggest pointing their attention to whether or not they are still hungry and point out that once dinner’s over, there won’t be anything else to eat till breakfast.

Once you’re ready, I would announce to them one evening what the new rules are and then put it into practice right away.  Be matter-of- fact, friendly, and firm.

Such action on your part will have several benefits:

  • It will cast your food in a more favorable light. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
  • Getting to eat at the table with the family will rise in their estimation, too. It becomes something we get to do instead of have to do.
  • It will put the children, instead of you, in the position of caring whether or not they get enough to eat. They are, after all, the only ones who can know whether they are satisfied or not. Children’s ability to regulate their own eating is fully formed at birth. It’s not something parents need to control for them. The more you interfere with it, the less it functions as it should. The sooner you tune children into their own appetites, the better.

Which leads directly to my third point: I highly recommend dropping the requirement to taste everything. That breaks my rule number three! I have never done that. It’s just asking for trouble. Making them makes them not want to. Pushing naturally leads to resistance. We can and should insist on certain behavior, but I would never insist on eating anything. It’s counterproductive.

That requirement communicates to them that the food isn’t something they would want to try on their own. You wouldn’t insist they try candy, or dessert, or draw with markers or play with a certain toy, would you?  No, they know what to do.  We don’t want to set up a difference between the foods he wants and the foods we want him to eat. A child who feels absolutely unpressured to eat will want to try food. His hunger will lead him naturally to food. If you make him try it, it becomes something he has to do instead of something he gets to do. He may be resisting because it gets your attention on him.

That’s a long answer, but I hope it might shine some light somewhere. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas and talk further about your situation!

Thanks for your question!

Related posts:

“Getting the kids to the dinner table: What is the parents’ job?”

“Lessons of Seduction: How to win your child over for life by putting your best food forward”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 3 April 2010 / all rights reserved

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Hi again, Lindsey, I took another shot at answering your question. I posted a new entry. I hope maybe we're getting closer to a solution. Let me know what you think! thanks for your questions! Anna


Thank you, Anna, for your suggestions! To answer your first question: yes, I believe they are hungry at mealtime. I think you are right about them having found a way to get my attention, although they receive my attention all day long because we homeschool, read together constantly, snuggle, etc. I'm afraid I do place too much emphasis on their eating habits at mealtime, and perhaps I should try addressing the issue during a more neutral time. We do try to carry on pleasant conversation, story-telling, joke-telling and the like, but that seems to distract them from eating rather than encourage it. Dinner tonight is a perfect example of our problem: I made a penne and shrimp with tomato-cream sauce. It had fresh basil and cream, and was delightful! (at least my husband, daughter, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!). My son, however, was dead-set against even trying it. As soon as his bottom hit the chair to come to dinner, he immediately started whining and crying about how he didn't like shrimp. (He's never even tasted shrimp.) Of course, we did our usual, "Just try it and you'll like it. If you don't, you don't have to eat it." After refusing to stop whining I sent him away from the table. A few minutes later, my husband went into his room, talked with him, and he came out ready to eat the pasta but not the shrimp. Fine...I was just so tired of the complaining! So then he proceeded to pick every piece of onion, garlic, basil, and shrimp off his pasta, thus taking for-e-ver to finish eating. All that said, it's not that my hubby and I are in a hurry to leave the table. We just know how to talk and eat at the same time, and have tried passing that skill onto the children, however unsuccessfully. Thank you for giving me permission to stop requiring them to taste everything. That's a sigh of relief for me, because I really thought I was doing the right thing. In answer to kc's question, we do not eat additive-laden foods. We try to buy organically whenever possible and affordable, and you won't find any artificial flavors, colors, preservative, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, or the like in any of our foods. Most everything I make is fresh, although I did use canned tomato sauce for our pasta tonight. Anyway, I hope that gives you a little more insight into our situation. I have always wanted our mealtimes to be pleasant and enjoyable because I have such fond memories of family meals from when I was a child. It just hasn't happened yet for our family. (And, while not every meal is like tonight's, tonight is a more common example of what a fly on our wall would witness if he were watching.)

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

KC, I think that's a great point. I've been reading lately about David Kessler's research shows how processed junk food is actually engineered to be addictive through the balance of sugar, fat and starch. My earlier post talks about it: Our tastes do get jaded by eating junk, I am sure. Very interesting that you could observe how your ability to taste and appreciate real food recovered like that. Thanks for your comment!!


I really enjoyed this post for the excellent common sense advice (as usual). All of those are excellent suggestions but I would add one more thing. If the children get additive laden foods at every meal except dinner at home they may not enjoy the taste (or lack of artificial flavors) of real food. I doubt that is the case here, but it would certainly be an issue with children that eat school breakfasts and lunches. Back when we removed additives from our diet, we had to be completely additive-free for at least a week before we could start tasting (and appreciating the taste of) real foods. It was quite a remarkable transition and one for which we were unprepared.