How to Stop Your Child’s Frustrating Mealtime Behaviors

Behavior, Self-Help, Special Needs Parenting

Frustrating mealtime behaviors can make the calmest of parents want to lose their minds!


I’ve threatened to throw iPADs in the garbage.


I’ve put my kid in time out.


I’ve put myself in time out and screamed into a pillow.


On Mother’s Day 2010, I cried at a restaurant before the meals were even served because my child’s behavior was so bad.


Find me a parent that hasn’t struggled with mealtime behaviors.


I’ll wait.


Most parents and caregivers will tell you that mealtimes can be one of the most stressful times of the day.


But why?


Why Mealtimes Are So Frustrating


Mealtimes are high stakes.


You need to get everyone fed.


You know they’re supposed to be healthy and balanced meals.


You also know that your child will only eat from a very tiny list of foods.


Maybe your child also has a diagnosis that makes eating more challenging.


Maybe your child is extremely regimented in how their food is presented.


Maybe your child doesn’t have the skills needed to feed himself and so you’re responsible for that too.


Repeat this scenario 4-6 times per day.  


Every.  Day.


No wonder families do what they need to do to get through mealtimes!


Before Moving Forward


If you missed last week’s post, please go back and read that first.


You’ll learn why ruling out medical issues or managing them is the very first step in treating feeding problems.


Behavior = Communication


My child always runs away from the table.


She won’t touch anything squishy.


He picks apart all of his food and eats teeny, tiny bites.


My daughter will only eat foods that are hard and crunchy and beige.


He gags on or spits out foods that aren’t pureed.  


All of these mealtime behaviors we see our children do day in and day out are telling us important information.


Their behavior is communicating to us that something isn’t right or that something is too difficult.


When we look at our child’s mealtime behaviors as communication, it helps us move away from blame and frustration.


It shifts us into problem solving mode so we can figure out WHY our child is struggling.


Why is my child _____________________?

  • Screaming and crying
  • Running away 
  • Spitting out food
  • Throwing food
  • Eating only 5 foods
  • Refusing to give up the bottle
  • Gagging on certain foods


Detective of Challenging Behaviors


Before we can jump into interventions and strategies, we have to know WHY certain mealtime behaviors are happening.


We also need to determine if the behaviors are happening because our child:

  • CAN’T do what we want them to do 




  • WON’T do what we want them to do


To do this, we have to carefully watch our child eat a meal.


I want you to pick at least one meal time when you know challenging behaviors are LIKELY to occur.


I also want you to pick at least one meal time when you know challenging behaviors are LESS LIKELY to occur.


After each of those meals, think about and write down the following:


  • What foods did my child eat?  Refuse?
  • Where did my child eat?
  • How long did the meal take?
  • What time of day was the meal?
  • Were there possible sensory issues that impacted eating? (type of foods offered, noises, siblings bumping into them, etc.)
  • Does your child have the skills to eat the foods offered?  (Able to place food into mouth, chew appropriately, swallow safely)
  • Were there any skills that your child seemed to struggle with? (Utensils, drinking from cup, chewing, swallowing, eating foods with larger chunks, etc)
  • When challenging behaviors occur –
    • What happened before the behavior? (told to go to table, food placed in front of them, told to take a bite, etc.)
    • What happened after the behavior? (food taken away, favorite food given, allowed to leave the table, etc.)
    • This post explains more about the reasons certain behaviors occur and how to determine the reason YOUR child is behaving a certain way.


After reviewing your notes, you’ll have insightful information about skills that your child is missing as well as why certain behaviors are happening at mealtimes.  


If your child is struggling with chewing, swallowing, breathing, or having other medical issues related to feeding, you’ll need to work with medical professionals that are familiar with your child’s specific needs.  Refer to last week’s post if you need additional information.


We Can Make Mealtime Behaviors Worse


Did you know that we adults, unfortunately, are often part of the problem?


I’m so sorry!


Most of the time, we are doing it from a well-meaning place, right?


We just want everyone to be happy.


We need everyone to eat something.


The good news is that when our behavior is part of the problem, we can change that!


I can’t change my child’s behavior, but I can change my own behavior.


Think about the following:

  • Do we give our picky eaters extra meals?  Special meals?
  • Do we allow our kids to graze throughout the day?
  • Do we turn on screens to help our kids eat dinner?
  • Are our expectations too high for our kid’s ability and age?
  • Do we react to all those negative behaviors?


Who can raise their hand to all of these?


I know I can!


What We Can Do To Improve Mealtime Behaviors


As I mentioned before, we can’t change other people’s behavior, however, we can change our own.


These changes can then have a huge impact on our child’s behavior!


Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Meal and snack schedule / eliminate grazing.
    • This teaches your child that meals and snacks occur during certain times of day.  You can offer water in between.  Doing this will provide structure and predictability as well as help your child feel hungry the next time food is offered.
  • Decrease distractions.
    • Change who sits where, turning off screens, putting pets in another room, etc can help your child focus on eating.
  • Decrease your demands.
    • If your first goal is to get your child to sit at the table, make that your only goal.  Don’t tack on eating new foods as well.  
    • If you’re working on eating a new food, provide a teeny tiny bite instead of a regular portion.  
  • Ignore smaller behaviors.
    • Keep your eye on your goal! 
    • Ignore minor behaviors like whining, saying the food is gross, or moving around in their seat.  
  • Provide 1-2 foods you know your child will eat.
    • If I sat down to a meal and there wasn’t anything that I wanted to eat, I’d probably act up too!  
    • Give your child a reason to sit at the table by having 1-2 foods they enjoy.  It doesn’t have to be their favorite foods at every meal, just something they can eat.
  • Model the behavior you want to see.
    • Put away your distractions.
    • Model sitting at the table with a calm body.
    • Eat with your child.


Mealtime Behaviors Can Get Better Over Time


First, remember to rule out and manage medical issues related to eating.


  • Keep in mind that kids with developmental delays, medical issues, those born prematurely, and those with sensory issues will often take longer to learn eating skills and communicate appropriately with you during meals.


Second, observe your child’s eating and behaviors during meals. 

  • When do you see more challenging behaviors?  When do you see fewer behaviors?


Third, decide what you can do to help your child learn new behaviors.

  • Start with one thing and then move onto something else.
  • For instance, eliminate grazing between meals and then move onto eating at the table.
  • If you want to get rid of screens, start with one screen-free snack or meal time then move on when you’ve got that tackled.


Lastly, get some help if you need it.  You’re not supposed to be a pediatric feeding expert!  Go back to last week’s post if you want to learn more about the different types of specialists who can help you and your child.


Most important, go easy on yourself and your child!


Feeding and mealtimes are complicated and different for every family.  


When you’re ready to start, choose your one thing to start with!  (If you want more information about how to prioritize your goals, check this out!)


If you have any questions or comments, let me know!


Coming Up


Next week, I’m covering one of my favorite mealtime topics…


Mealtime Schedules and Routines!



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