The Power of the Mealtime Schedule

Behavior, Self-Help, Special Needs Parenting

Setting up a mealtime schedule is by far one of the most important things we can do to help our kids learn how to eat new foods and become less picky.


When I’m on a home visit and the family brings up concerns about picky eating or challenging behaviors at meal times, I always ask about their routine and what eating looks like right now.


Most of the time the child is grazing throughout the day because parents just want to get some calories in them.  


Many times parents are giving the child something they know they’ll eat – not what the rest of the family is having.


When I observe a meal, the child usually isn’t eating at the table.  Often a parent is following the child around the house with a fork trying to get a few bites in while the child plays or watches TV.


We do all of this in the name of getting our child to eat a few bites.


Few things feel worse as a parent than when your child won’t eat.


Today we’re going to talk about why establishing mealtime schedules should be the foundation in any plan when you’re wanting your child to learn better habits and eat a bigger variety of food.


My Disclaimer


Before we jump into feeding and related issues, I want to state that I am not a feeding expert.  I am not a dietician, GI specialist, nutritionist, etc.  I am not trained to assess and treat children with complex swallowing, feeding, and oral-motor issues.  My posts and resources will contain information that I am qualified to speak about (feeding development/skills, behavioral strategies, routines/schedules, etc.).  You will need to seek out the advice and recommendations of your child’s pediatrician, speech and occupational therapists, nutritionists, and other professionals that are familiar with your child’s specific needs.


What is a Mealtime Schedule?


So, what do I mean when I say “establish a mealtime schedule?”


This means your child has certain times during the day when food is available and certain times when other activities are happening.


This can be a difficult thing to set up if you’re used to just giving your child a snack or drink whenever they ask or whenever they bring you something.  


It’s also very hard when it doesn’t seem like your child is eating very much and you just want to get a few bites into them however you can.


For our toddlers, two year-olds, and preschoolers, a meal schedule would include 4-6 times per day that your child has the opportunity to eat.


These eating opportunities happen every 2-4 hours.  


Why Is a Mealtime Schedule Effective?


Meal time schedules allow your child to actually feel hungry and want to eat.  


When your child is hungry, they are more motivated to eat the foods you have made.


Additionally, having regular meals and snacks allows your child to have a more stable blood sugar level throughout the day.


I don’t know about you, but my moods are VERY easily affected by how long it’s been since I ate.  


Likewise, when meals and snacks are provided at regular times, we tend to see improved behavior.


A mealtime schedule provides predictability and teaches expectations and rules.  This is incredibly important for our toddlers through preschoolers.  


How To Set Up a Mealtime Schedule


How you set up your meal time schedule is going to depend on your family and the schedule you have already.


You might have work and daycare and school schedules that are established.


Your child might want to eat as soon as they wake up.


Maybe you have a kid who doesn’t want to eat much until later in the morning.


All of these factors will determine how you set up your schedule.


You’ll build in your eating opportunities around natural breaks in your day and around when your family is already eating.


As you think about your schedule, keep these Do’s and Don’ts in mind:



  • Make sure all adults are onboard with the schedule.
  • Plan ahead for the day – make sure you have your meals and snacks planned out ahead of time.
  • Notice your child’s natural hunger cues.  If they get really hungry around 3pm but dinner isn’t until 5, they might eat a bigger snack and then have a lighter dinner.  We all have different times of day when we are hungrier and eat more.
  • Offer at least 1 preferred food at each eating opportunity.  It doesn’t have to be their absolute favorite, but just something you know they’ll typically eat.  
  • Offer an eating opportunity every 2-4 hours depending on your schedule and your child’s hunger cues.
  • Have an end to your eating opportunity.  Provide about 10-20 minutes for snacks/smaller meals and 20-30 minutes for larger meals.  
  • Decrease distractions.  TV, pets, siblings, toys, etc can all be distractions and take away the desire to eat.  If your child sees something they’d rather be doing, they aren’t going to want to stay at the meal.
  • Model how to sit at the table and eat.  Put away your screens.  Show your child how to eat a variety of foods and have good meal time behaviors.
  • Provide water only in between meals and snacks.
  • End on a good note – if you can tell your child is starting to be done, offer the chance to be all done BEFORE food gets thrown, yelling, crying, etc. occurs.
  • Remember, your child’s eating will fluctuate from day to day.  Some days they’ll eat like a horse, some days like a bird.  Some kids prefer to eat more in the morning, some prefer to eat later in the day.
  • Treat snacks and meals equally.  We put more pressure on ourselves and our kids during meal times.  Snacks are seen as just extras.  Treat both equally.  Provide 1 preferred food at each.  Have a time limit.  Know your child’s hunger might be different than yours.  They may need to eat more or less at different times of day.  


  • Don’t respond to every behavior.  If your child whines, fusses, pokes at their food, etc., let it go!  Ignore the minor behaviors and praise the good ones!
  • Don’t leave the plate, sippy cup, etc. out past the end of the meal.  Put an end time to the eating opportunity and put the food away afterwards.
  • Don’t provide sippy cups full of milk or juice between meals.  Water only!
  • Don’t get hung up on amounts of food eaten.  The goal is to establish a schedule!  That’s the work right now!
  • Don’t end the meal when your child is throwing, yelling, fussing, etc.  Wait for them to have a quiet mouth and calm body before you end it.  We want them to learn that appropriate behavior ends the meal.  


A Few Words About Grazing


Nothing is going to hinder your plans of a mealtime schedule like grazing.


We’ve all been there before, right?


Maybe on your last vacation.


You ate breakfast.  Then some bites of a casserole.  Then that donut you’ve been eyeing.  Maybe a few bites of fruit.  You went to Starbucks and got a sugary drink.


Now it’s lunch time and you feel stuffed and don’t want to eat again.


That’s grazing!


Nine times out of 10, when a parent tells me their child isn’t eating well, grazing is playing a role.


A few fruit snacks here.  Dad gave me some goldfish.  I ate a couple bites of pancake that was left on my breakfast plate.


Now mom wants me to sit down for lunch and eat chicken, strawberries, and macaroni.  




I’m going to run away, throw the food on the floor, whine, fuss, etc.  And I’m definitely not going to eat.


Besides, I have my trusty sippy cup that’s always full of milk.


Grazing will keep your child’s tummy just full enough.


They won’t feel hungry.


They don’t actually know what that feels like.


Motivation to eat stays low.  


Definitely not trying anything new.


What to Do Instead:

  • Keep to your schedule.  If your child doesn’t eat, that’s ok.  There will be another chance in a couple of hours.
  • Only provide water during meals.
  • Make sure other adults and older kids in the house are sticking to your new schedule.
  • Have things to do in the meantime.  Playing with toys, playing outside, watching a show, reading books, etc. are all other activities they can do with you until another eating opportunity comes up.


When Grazing is OK


Is grazing ever ok?  


I would say, yes – IF your goal is for your child to try new foods.


Let’s say you are getting a fruit salad ready for dinner and you’re cutting up watermelon and your child wants to try it.


Let them have a taste!  You are encouraging them to try something new and that is the goal!


We still want to eliminate the typical grazing that includes taking a few bites of favorite snack foods throughout the day and constantly drinking from a sippy cup of juice or milk.


However, if your child sees you eating something and wants to try it – GO FOR IT!


Mealtime Schedule For the Win


Setting up a mealtime schedule is one of the most important pieces if you want to see your child eating a bigger variety of foods.


Schedules eliminate grazing, increase motivation to eat, and provide predictability and understanding expectations.


But what if my kid isn’t eating at a table yet???


We’re going to get there next week!!


If your child is already sitting at the table or in a high chair, GREAT!  Continue with that!


If your child isn’t eating at the table yet, you have two options:

  • Start with the schedule and get that going first.  Then tackle eating at the table.
  • Meals and snacks offered on a schedule AND only available at the table.


There isn’t a right or wrong option.  Both will get you to the same goal, but the first option will take you a little longer.


If you want to learn how to teach your child to eat at the table, come back next week!


Questions or comments about this post?  I would love to hear from you!


If you think sensory issues may be impacting your child’s eating habits, check out this post!


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