One thing you need to do for mealtime success: have a mealtime routine

By Penelope Henderson, MSc, RNutr/ 05/03/2023
happy girl eating lunch at the table

Meal times and having a routine for your child can seem like such a small thing but actually having this in place can make a huge difference to how relaxed mealtimes can be. With a mealtime routine in place it can help with your childs expectations, build their appetite and learn other skills like laying the table.  

What is a mealtime routine?

A mealtime routine is simply a routine for meals and this can include what to do pre-meals, during meals and end of meals. A routine that is set for every meal and ideally at the same time so it is consistent and kids learn what to expect from this. 

Why is it important to have a mealtime routine?

There are three main reasons why it is important to have a mealtime routine. These include security for your child, managing their appetite and learning rituals like setting up the table, manners and clearing away. 

Security and consistency 

This means eating at the same time everyday, at the same place with the same rules. Having this consistency in place provides security for your child and everyone knows what to expect. 

Appetite regulation 

A meal time routine helps children to regulate their appetite so they are coming to the table hungry and ready to eat. By providing regular meal and snack times that are timed appropriately this means they are nourished throughout the day and not constantly asking for snacks. 

Learning 

Learning what to expect and learning behaviours like washing hands and doing little jobs like laying the table and clearing away is all good for taking responsibility and having discipline early on. 

What is a positive mealtime environment?

A positive mealtime environment is one where everyone knows what to expect, where they are eating, what they are eating and happy to come to the table. If you also set some ground rules like about devices and not having them at the table then everyone is following the rules and no arguments. 

Ways to create positive mealtimes  

Make it a fun and social time

Mealtimes should be enjoyable and if you have a fussy eater then its easy to get stressed prior to mealtimes knowing they are going to be difficult. Have a focus on one thing you can chat about like a favorite tv program, something fun they have enjoyed that day etc.

Novelty cups, plates, bowls etc

Having these for your child may help to settle them knowing they have their favourite plate or mug. 

Take the focus off fussy eating behaviour

If they start to be difficult around what’s served like pushing food away, meltdowns, etc. Don’t create a battle but let them know this is whats for dinner and you don’t have to eat it, however next meal will be at zxy.

Also you can divert unwanted behaviour away by focusing on other questions like saying ‘what does it smell like?, what is the colour?, how is this different from what you normally have?, what other foods do you like of the same colour? 

Eat together where possible

Creates connection and builds your relationship with your child whilst you are eating. If it’s difficult to eat at earlier times with your child then even taking a small amount of the same food to your place will help to encourage them to eat too. 

Research shows that children will eat more fruit and vegetables if they are watching adults eating these foods (1). 

Be realistic

Things don’t always go to plan and be realistic that things can change and meals you have made which you think they will eat are rejected. By staying calm and sticking to your rules about meals and having something safe for them to eat you know they will eat something. 

Praise for positive mealtimes 

Such as praise for manners, sitting at the table nicely, touching food, tying food etc. Be wise with your praise though and don’t make it into a big thing. 

What components are involved during a mealtime routine for infants? 

Pre- meal warning

Often mealtime stress begins being asked to come and eat when your child is happily playing or engaging in some activity they don’t want to leave. However if you give them a warning of say 5, 10 minutes or whatever to say dinner will be ready then. It gives them time to turn the television off, put some toys away and be ready for dinner. 

If they do become upset at being asked to turn the television off or stop what they are doing then they have 5 – 10 mins to calm down before the meal begins. 

Pre-meal activity

This could be washing hands, laying the table, helping to get the food on the table or laying plates out. 

They could also be involved in a little preparation of the food. Something very simple like mixing a salad, chopping some raw veggies or putting some seeds in a bowl or something to accompaniment. 

Mealtime

Having the time set about the same time every day. Even snack times so you know these are being spaced out and they are not constantly asking when the next meal/snack will be. 

Length of mealtime

An appropriate length of time that they can sit down and eat for. For younger children this is likely to only be 10 mins but for 5 years upwards about 20 mins. There is no point in making them sit for a long period of time as they will eat what they want in that period of time. 

Finishing mealtimes and clearing away

Taking plates away, helping to load the dishes into the dishwaher or do some washing up. 

How many meals and snacks are in a mealtime routine?

It is recommended that children have 3 meals and 2 – 3 snacks a day. This is a guide and obviously all children vary with their appetites. 

Mealtime routine for 2 – 4 year olds

If your child is young or a visual learner than having some visual cards with the pictures and or words can help create the understanding and predictability of knowing what steps and routine to follow. 

If you would like to know more steps to mealtime success then I have the perfect guide for you called : 6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes.

Conclusion

A mealtime routine consists of a pre meal warning, pre mealtime activity, realistic mealtime length and clearing away. Having this mealtime routine is important for kids in providing security, consistency and regulating their appetites. It is also key to help preventing mealtime stress.

Do you have a mealtime routine? if so, what works for your family? comment below.

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MEET THE AUTHOR
Author Penelope Henderson

Hi I’m Penelope Henderson RNutr Registered Nutritionist specialising in children’s nutrition and responsive feeding therapy.

I am a mum of 2, with over 15 years of experience in nutrition. I support parents to feel confident in how and what to feed their child. I hope you find my recipes and nutrition posts useful, so you can enjoy stress free cooking and mealtimes.

More about me

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free guide to 6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes

6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes

This guide includes the 6 steps you can take to get your child eating better with more variety, reduce stress and create happier mealtimes.

Includes a meal planning guide and template with fun ways to get them to eat more.

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