Mealtime Atmosphere and Eating Behavior

Mealtime should be a time for eating — not for disciplining, arguing, sharing distressing news, doing other activities or watching television. The best mealtime atmosphere is bright, clean, relaxed and free of distractions.

Present Food in an Appealing Manner

  • Use a variety of bright food colors and textures, as is appropriate for your child's age
  • Offer finger foods or bite-sized foods for toddlers
  • Avoid extreme temperatures
  • Avoid strong flavors, as a child's taste buds are more sensitive than those of an adult

Make Mealtime Interesting

Try serving meals in a variety of interesting ways:

  • Meals by candlelight
  • Barbeque or picnic
  • A "just finger foods" meal
  • Breakfast foods for dinner

Do Not Force Your Child to Eat

Forcing children to eat reinforces poor eating habits such as eating when they aren't hungry or cleaning the plate when they're already full. Rewarding your child for eating, punishing your child for not eating, or forcing your child to eat can reinforce poor behavior. Besides causing an unpleasant mealtime environment, these behaviors can create a picky eater or result in your child becoming overweight.

Do Not Bribe Your Child to Eat

Food provides nutrients that our bodies need to grow and be healthy. Tricking your child into eating can place other meanings on food. Your child may then crave certain foods, avoid some foods or generally become picky or obsessive about food.

Address Misbehavior at Mealtimes

If at all possible, ignore the misbehavior. If poor behavior continues, remove the food calmly without comment until the next mealtime or snack time. The goal is for your child to learn that mealtime is for eating, not playing.

Avoid Serving Meals When Your Child is Overly Tired

Your child may need a short nap before a meal. A tired child will not be able to focus on eating and practicing good mealtime behavior.

Develop a Mealtime Routine

Children need a meal routine to depend on, so they don't worry about when the next meal is coming. If children know they'll have a snack between meals, they will be less likely to overeat out of fear they'll be allowed to go hungry before the next meal.

Allow Your Child to Help

A child can help with setting the table, folding napkins, clearing the table, washing the dishes or other tasks. Your child also can help with grocery shopping and preparing meals. These tasks can be opportunities to teach your child about healthy eating.

 

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.