Question from a reader: How long do children need for meals?

Mar 21, 2014 by

“Is it best to allot 30 minutes for kiddos to eat, an hour, 90 minutes? I feel like anything over 30-40 minutes just seems excessive and more frustrating for the adults. At about 20 minutes today, it was obvious the kids were done eating what was on their plates.” – Laurel

Thanks for your question, Laurel!  As usual, I have plenty to say. Sometimes parents or caretakers of picky eaters make children sit at the table until they eat a certain amount. Not very effective, I dare say. Making children sit there for a certain amount of time just because you think they should sit there, even if they are not eating, is no better. The ideal is to engage children in enjoyable conversation at the table, regardless of their ages.  If you create a pleasant atmosphere at the table, children will enjoy being with adults at the table. As children get older, they will enjoy sitting around the table and will spend more time chatting with their parents, if things go well. That’s a great goal to shoot for. What’s good for them is good for us adults.

Creating that happy dinner table should be the main goal. Much goes into that task, but it’s not very complicated. Good habits (no random snacking) and good food will help give children the desire to be at the table and to eat. Good company – pleasant conversation and an atmosphere of mutual respect – will draw children in. The good company of adults is the best way to get kids to view foods positively, too. Don’t wait for kids to eat the way you want them to eat to create a happy dinner table. Happiness at the dinner table is your best hope of getting kids to eat. Give them that and they’re likely to give you better eating. If either adults or children or both are frustrated, that’s a bad sign. If things go right, both parties will be happy.

Without being rigid and unnatural about it, you should get into a routine with the children; they should be able to expect that meals last a certain amount of time, the right amount of time.  Meals should be long enough for children to eat as much as they need to eat, but not too long. How’s that for being clear? Certainly for three-year-olds,  20 minutes is probably plenty.  If they are dawdlers, they should learn to feel a certain urgency, without feeling overly pushed or rushed. Limit the length of the meal, rather than making them sit there against their will or even worse, eat against their will in order to be set free from the table. If they don’t get their eating done, they will learn quickly not to let that happen after they feel hungry a time or two between meals. If a child seems to be working at it sincerely but is very slow, be understanding and patient.

Don’t tell anyone to hurry up and eat; rather just end the meal after a reasonable amount of time and let the children come forward to get enough to eat before the meal ends. Get into the pattern of ending the meal when it feels like it’s time to end the meal. Children should see it coming and get their eating done. They should have a feel for about how much time they have, so that no adult need say, “You need to eat more quickly.” Who likes to be rushed?  Maybe make motions to start clearing things away. Let the children worry about whether they are still hungry or not. If they seem sincerely chagrined at the meal ending, a kind adult can always say, “Do you need more time?” We want to treat children with respect and kindness, as one human to another, and teach them to treat adults with respect and kindness. What’s good for them is good for us.

So many parents and caretakers get in the pattern of struggling for power all the time, acting like adversaries and talking roughly to each other. That’s never the best way. Adults don’t need to be super controlling if they have proactively worked to set up a good atmosphere in the home and laid down good habits. If we have a good relationship with children first of all, things will go better overall. They will want to please us and understand us and cooperate with us if they feel respected and loved.

Little children can learn to say, “May I be excused?” if the adults are still sitting around enjoying adult conversation and they want to go play after they’re done eating. That’s what we were taught at my house growing up. If the children are bored, which is OK sometimes, forcing them to stay and act like they’re not bored will accomplish nothing. If you want them to hang out longer at the table and be sociable, try create the situation where they will WANT to do so.

I suggest focusing more on making the dinner table a pleasant place for everybody to be, which includes leaving children alone about their eating. Don’t do anything unusual and strained in hopes of getting kids to eat. Do what makes sense for your schedule and lifestyle and for the comfort of the child and the adults. What’s good for them is good for us.