What is supposed to be an enjoyable time gathering around the dinner table can sometimes trigger power struggles and big emotions. What role does discipline have when it comes to teaching healthy eating habits and table manners? Ms. Jennifer, Lead Guide at Guidepost Montessori West Loop and mother of two, shares practical tips below on navigating mealtime struggles.
First, it’s important to do some prep by zooming out of whatever the current struggle may be – such as picky eating – and evaluating the larger framework of dinnertime.
- What is the tone? Dinner with children should not be hyper-focused on their plate. Dinner should be a time to come together and enjoy yourselves, whether that is over the food, conversation or the quality time. The easiest way for dinner to turn sour is to pick on your children about their eating. On this note, Ms. Jennifer also suggests:
- Keep the conversation inclusive to your children, not just to your partner. Topics that are specific to you and your partner should be held at another time.
- Try “the rose and the thorn,” where everyone goes around and shares the best part of the day (the rose) as well as the worst part of their day (the thorn).
- What are your expectations? You can have rules about dinner without delivering them during dinner, which is when children can start to feel picked on. Ms. Jennifer suggests holding a family meeting before dinner, reminding your children what comes next and neutrally stating what the dinner table expectations are. By communicating these expectations in advance, a gentle and quick reminder is all that is needed if tested at the table.
- What are some examples of appropriate rules? Each family will have their own preferences, but there are a few standard expectations that are also enforced in the classroom:
- No wandering. Children should sit down when they are eating food.
- Use utensils.
- Contribute. Children, even from a young age, should have a role such as setting the table as well as placing their plate in the sink when finished.
- Grace and Courtesy. Children should have the option to leave the table when they are done, but they should know how to excuse themselves, “May I be excused?”
With this framework in place, it’s important to understand that we may still encounter things like picky eating or testing of boundaries with our children. In these moments, the best thing we can do is to keep our emotions out of it.
“This can be a hard time of day for parents, who may be tired from working all day and then invest time making this meal only for the food to get rejected. You may be feeling tapped out and just want to be done with it, but it is important that we keep our emotions out of dinnertime.” - Ms. Jennifer
- Plate your child’s meal differently. This does not mean make different meals, it means if you’re serving a side of broccoli for everyone, take the time to serve it to your children how they would most enjoy it – such as adding ranch.
- Invite them to “try a bite.” Don’t shy away from offering a variety of foods to your children even if they’ve rejected something before. It can take up to 30 times of being exposed to a new food before children develop a preference for it. If they really do not want to try or continue eating after one bite, honor their choice and autonomy.
- Ask for their input. Instead of zooming in on the food they rejected in the moment, bring it up later and give them a chance to share what they like. “Remember how you did not want to taste the peas tonight? Is there another way we could try them next time? Do you like butter?” This gives them agency.
- Give concrete information. Talk about food! Go through the food plate, pyramid, and provide information on food as fuel for our bodies.
- Under-serve. Always offer smaller portions rather than larger portions to avoid food waste. This way, if they do finish a portion, they can always get seconds – and getting seconds brings more opportunity for grace and courtesy practice.
- Getting angry. Children can only control so many things, and one of those things is what goes into their bodies. If they don’t feel they have agency around what they eat, they may say no repeatedly as part of a negative feedback cycle.
- Over-praise. If they finish their plate, be careful not to react with your own emotion even if it’s positive. Instead of making an external judgment in the form of, “I’m so proud of you for finishing your plate, good job!” Encourage them to evaluate for themselves how they feel after eating. “Do you feel satisfied? It looks like you enjoyed your meal tonight.”
- Bribes. Food is fuel. Food is nutrition. It should never be used as a bribe, nor should it be incentivized. Avoid using things like ice cream or candy as rewards for finishing dinner. If you are serving dessert that night, just neutrally serve dessert to everyone at the table.
What about back-up options? If we are able to stay neutral and give our children agency, but we observe that they are repeatedly not eating dinner, should we allow them to eat something different?
Ms. Jennifer says this is a personal choice. If your boundary is such that dinner is the last meal of the day, then you could focus on ensuring there is always something on their dinner plate that they will eat. You could also offer back-up options, such as a snack shelf where they can access healthy alternatives independently. Ms. Jennifer has not only navigated picky eating, but also “failure to thrive.” She points out that the general saying, “They will eat if they are hungry,” is not true for every child. In the case where parents are concerned that their children are not getting enough food, discuss it with your family pediatrician for personalized support.
In This Series:
"A Montessori Framework for Discipline"
"Positive Discipline with Whole.Child.Home"
"How To Set Limits with Ms Krys"
"How to Bridge Discipline from School to Home with Ms. Brittany"
"How to Avoid Punishment and What to do Instead with Ms. Bridgette"
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