The Trials and Tribulations of Mealtimes
Do you ever feel like your kid is auditioning for a part in a comedy-drama during meal times? You’re not alone.
Each of us, at some point, has faced the “you can’t make me eat that” standoff. We’ve tried to negotiate peace treaties with chicken nuggets, dangled the carrot of dessert to encourage just one more bite, and even attempted the art of distraction by handing them their iPad – all in the hope of keeping our kids at the table long enough just to simply try a bite of the dinner we spent the last hour making.
Feeding kids is a really tough gig. Trust me, I get it, and there’s no judgment here.
Many of us are at our wits end by dinner time. We’re overstimulated, touched out, the mountain of tasks for tomorrow piling up in our brains. So it makes sense- you just want some peace at the table. You just want your kid to eat what you made! Or try a single bite of a vegetable, or just sit at the table for more than 30 seconds before exclaiming, “I’m done!”
We’re all on the same team: Team Get-Our-Kids-To-Eat. That’s why I want to chat about how screens at mealtimes might work against us, and what we can do to turn the tables.
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Please hear me say: I’m not here to villainize screen time. You gotta do what you gotta do sometimes, right?
I like to look at screen time as a tool we can keep in our parenting arsenal to pull out when it’s appropriate or necessary. (Which, let’s be honest, sometimes it is!). But at meal times, the presence of screens can actually be counterproductive for what we’re trying to accomplish.
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Do you prefer to listen instead of read?
To find out how parents can limit screen time for kids at meals, listen to my podcast Episode #4: iPad and Distracted Eating.
Why should parents limit screen time for kids at meals?
My biggest issue with screens at meal times is this: distraction. And I know what you’re saying, “but, Kacie, that’s the point! They NEED to be distracted!”
But this kind of distraction isn’t really productive for a mealtime setting.
Imagine trying to tune into a radio station with another blaring in the background. That’s what it’s like for kids when they’re watching Bluey and trying to focus on eating at the same time. They can’t focus on two things at once. And what’s on the screen is going to be more stimulating than the lasagna on their plate. (Although I don’t doubt it’s delicious!)
When you’re competing with the screen, it’s impossible to turn their attention toward the food, or their hunger/fullness cues.
Our long-term goal is to help our kiddos become intuitive eaters. We want them to understand when they’re hungry or full, to recognize what foods make them feel good, and to know how much to eat. They can practice those skills best when they are mentally present.
Start with this printable:
Get this free kid-friendly hunger and fullness scale to help your child tune into their body’s cues! A cute visual can help your child communicate to you their level of hunger or fullness. It’s a helpful tool to start the conversation about being mindful of the things our body tells us.
Noticing hunger and fullness
Screens during meal times have a way of muting these signals, or rather, drowning them out. Their brains can’t focus on too many things at once. Plus, kids shows are notoriously stimulating, so it’s going to be hard to tell if they’re hungry, full, or somewhere in between. We want our kids to focus on their food and their bodies, and to eat mindfully and safely.
Beyond just the distraction element, we risk creating a situation where screens become a mealtime prerequisite. Ideally, we want entertainment to be there for fun and enjoyment, and not as a requirement for any activity.
I just want to be sure to say- if you’re in the habit of using screens at meals or screens are already a requirement for them to come to the table- don’t worry! All hope is not lost. I have some strategies that can help reframe meal times and hopefully make them more enjoyable for the whole family.
Making Mealtimes More Engaging
Let’s touch on some ways to make mealtimes more engaging without having to rely on screens.
The Fun Factor
If we want our kids to look forward to mealtimes, it helps to make it fun. And no, this doesn’t mean you have to sculpt their food into animal shapes. (But you can, if you really feel like it!)
I personally do NOT have it in me to be the creator of the fun come dinnertime. So I always have a few go-to games that we can play. For toddler age, it was the “which is better?” game. My kids LOVED giving their opinion. So I’d just ask random things like, “tiger or elephant?” “Red or pink?” And they’d each call out their answer.
Now that my kids are older, we like doing “would you rather,” “two truths and a lie,” and they LOVE these question cards.
Playing with your food is totally in bounds, too!
Creating a broccoli forest or a mashed potato mountain can be a fun way to get kids excited about their food. It also makes them more likely to take a bite, believe it or not! Playfulness can really up the spirit of the meal. And when kids don’t feel like they need to be robots at the table, it loosens things up a bit!
The Power of Family Meals
Eating together as a family is a powerful way to encourage healthy eating habits in kids. There’s even studies that say so! When we sit down and eat with our children, it provides a sense of routine, and makes space for conversation and shared experiences. Even if it’s just one adult and one child, eating together can make a difference.
And if you’re not eating dinner with them, that’s okay! Who doesn’t want to eat dinner without having to get up 16 times? You could have a snack with them or just sit with them so you can talk and interact.
That being said… I’m an introvert in a fully introverted family. We don’t always have the desire to chat by the time dinner rolls around. That’s okay too! This is when I like to bring a book or a small toy or 2 to the table.
I love this table chair for babies and toddlers. It’s a way to bring them closer to the table than their high chair allows. That way your littlest ones can feel like they’re part of the meal!
Make it Family-Style
A little bit of autonomy can go a long way in making kids more interested in their food. When food is in the center of the table and everyone serves themselves, kids gain control over what and how much they put on their plate.
Some kids, especially picky eaters, can be totally turned off when something on their plate is unfamiliar or off-putting. With the family-style method, they get to have some say in what goes on their plate. And I’ve found that they’re often more receptive to new foods or larger portions than when it’s plated for them!
“I do it myself!” I’m sure we’ve all heard that, plenty! So this is one way to empower them to do that. They’ll need some help and guidance, of course. I’m sure you’re imagining 7 heaping scoops of macaroni going onto their plate. You’re fully allowed to limit them.
Get them Involved
I really like to involve kids in the planning. It gets a little monotonous being in charge of every menu item, so I enlist my kids! When they’re old enough, it can be fun to give each kid a night of the week where they get to choose and plan dinner. When kids are involved in meal planning and preparation, they feel a sense of pride and ownership- like it’s their meal. For toddlers, you can start by giving simple choices. “Would you like white potatoes or sweet potatoes tonight?” “Do you want full moon cucumbers or half moons?”
Charcuterie-Style Snack Board Meals
Let’s be honest, charcuterie boards feel like a mini buffet on a plate, and who doesn’t love a good buffet? This one goes hand-in-hand with family style meals, but can be even easier to throw together. A deconstructed salad or burrito bowl with toppings in little multicolored muffin cups can be a really fun presentation for kids. Having a little bit of everything and getting to build your own bowl is engaging for kids. It can even help picky eaters feel a little more comfortable about what goes on their plate.
When You’re Home, Eat at the Table
While it may be tempting to let kids eat on the couch while watching TV, making a habit of eating at the table can help keep them focused on their meal. Like I said, it’s helpful if an adult can sit down with them. But at the very least, engaging them in conversation while they have their meal can help break the habit of eating all around the house.
Plan an Outdoor Meal
If weather allows, eating outside once a week can be a fun change of pace. Whether it’s a picnic at the park or just in your backyard, it’s a refreshing way to break the routine. Picnic-style meals can be super easy and there’s no harm in serving PB&J for dinner when you need a night off of cooking!
I love this foldable picnic mat with a shoulder strap for easy carrying. It makes outdoor dining a breeze!
If the weather is uncooperative, a living room floor picnic will also work 100%!
Unplugging for Healthier, Happier Mealtimes
Screens can be life-savers in certain situations – long car trips, airplane rides, waiting rooms, and days when we just need five minutes of peace. But when it comes to mealtimes, they might not be doing us any favors.
If screens are a fixture at your mealtimes, try slowly weaning off. There are two approaches that make it a gradual thing.
How to start limiting screen time at meals
Option 1: Start by eliminating screens at one meal of the day. Use some of the strategies above to get your kids engaged! Prep them ahead of time by letting them know you’re making this switch. They are not going to like it. But I am confident you can do it!
Option 2: Start by having a few minutes screen-free at the beginning of the meal before allowing the screen. You can set a timer. Over the course of a few days, extend the timer by 1 minute each time, until they are able to finish the meal before getting screentime. Also incorporate strategies from this post so they don’t whine the entire time!
Remember, our goal is to raise healthy kids with a good foundation of healthy eating habits, and we get the opportunity to set the tone for them.
Wishing you many days and nights of easier, happier, and screen-less mealtimes!
If you’re bogged down with what to cook/prepare/offer at mealtimes, let me take some that stress off your plate with my Meal and Snack Survival Guide. It’s loaded with dozens of meal and snack ideas, product recommendations, and tips for helping you feed your family in a way that is simple, quick, and nutritious!
FAQs on screens at meals
- Are you saying I should NEVER allow a screen at mealtimes?
- Nope! I’ll never say “never” to anything. Because there are always going to be exceptions. Maybe they are sick, and they just can’t get off the couch. Maybe YOU are sick, and you need help to get through the mealtime! Or perhaps you come up with a middle ground, where most meals are screen free, but you allow a handful of meals with screen time a week. I honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as long as they are able to do screen-free meals regularly without a fuss.
- Should parents limit screen time at meals if it’s the ONLY way a kid will eat?
- If you really cannot get them to eat without a screen, and you’ve tried some things in this post, I would reach out to a feeding therapist for an evaluation. Or start by calling the pediatrician to share your concerns and get a recommendation for a feeding therapist from them!