Mealtime Hassles

"My kids' table manners are atrocious. They get up and down during the meal, grab food across the table, and complain about my cooking. Any ideas?"

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

Mealtime should nourish both the body and the soul. Too many families forget this and turn mealtime into a nightmare of corrections, nagging, threats, fighting, and individual grandstanding. Parental concern for healthy children can become out of proportion around the subject of food, especially since many of us have our own hang-ups about weight, looks, and diet. We try to be good parents by making sure our children eat properly. Quite often, instead of providing healthy choices and trusting our kids to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are not, we interfere in this natural process. Without knowing it, we can plant the seeds for eating disorders. We are most effective when we encourage children to listen to their bodies' clues and trust themselves to eat appropriately.


  1. If kids know it's okay to eat what they eat and leave what they leave, they are less apt to complain. Do not insist on children eating everything on their plates or tasting every food. Avoid potential eating disorders by turning eating over to the child.
  2. It is normal for young children to play with their food, spill their milk, and drop food on the floor. Behavior appropriate for their ages is not misbehavior. Clean up spills, let kids finger-paint in their food, and get a dog to eat what drops. If you don't want a dog, put a plastic sheet under a young child's place.
  3. Some families allow children to make themselves a sandwich if they don't like the meal. Do not cook special dishes for each child.
  4. Let your kids serve themselves and do not discuss what they eat or don't eat. Simply clear their plates at the end of the meal (ten to fifteen minutes is plenty of time).
  5. If kids complain about your cooking, tell them it's okay not to eat what they don't like, but it hurts the chef when people complain. With a young child, when he says, "I don't like this," remove his plate and say, "Okay, you don't have to eat it." That usually ends the complaining very quickly.
  6. Do not eat in front of the television. Adults should sit down and eat with the kids. Set the table with flowers, candles, or place mats, or eat in the dining room to create a special experience for the family.
  7. If you think your children's behavior has become too obnoxious, you might try deciding what you will do instead of trying to control your children. Pick up your plate and go to another room to eat.
  8. Another possibility is to ignore the behavior. Many children stop obnoxious behavior when it doesn't get a rise out of their parents.
  9. If your child decides to become a vegetarian or wants to try out any other health-conscious new way of eating, ask your child how you can be supportive. Don't make fun of your child or insist he or she eat the way you do or treat the new habit as an eating disorder. Many vegetarians made the decision to change their eating as very young children. If you are a vegetarian and your child insists on eating meat, the same advice applies. Do not force your way of eating on your children.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. One of the best ways to prevent or stop a potentially damaging pattern is to avoid interfering with your children's eating. That includes putting them on diets, nagging, criticizing, or taking them to clinics and doctors without their agreement.
  2. Look at your own attitudes about weight, food, and eating patterns and what they may be suggesting to your children. Are you saying things like "Finish everything on your plate" and then later getting upset because your child is overweight? Do you tell your kids they can't eat between meals, which may encourage them to binge at mealtimes? Consider other ways in which you are unconsciously trying to control your child's food intake.
  3. When children complain about the food, it may be time to involve them in choosing what they eat, at least one night a week. Let each child cook dinner one night a week. Even small kids can cook hot dogs, open a can of beans, and make a simple salad.
  4. Plan with kids what they can do to contribute. Talk about the different jobs that need to be done, such as setting the table, cooking dinner, washing the dishes, and feeding the pets.
  5. Stress that mealtime is a time to share stories about the day, visit with each other, and share the good feelings of being together as a family.
  6. Practice good table manners at a time other than mealtime. Kids love to role-play. Pretend you are having a party and invite your children and all their stuffed animals. Set the table with a snack. Ask the kids for their ideas as to what constitutes bad table manners. Give a limited choice of what will happen when bad table manners occur: either the stuffed animal's plate is removed or the animal is removed from the table and can eat again at the next snack party. Demonstrate follow-through with the stuffed animals, so the children can see ahead of time what will happen.
  7. Choose one night a week to practice table manners. Make it fun. Invite everyone to exaggerate, saying, "Pleeeeease pass the butter." Make a game of getting points for catching others with their elbows on the table, talking with their mouths full, interrupting others, complaining, or reaching across the table. The one with the most points gets to choose the after-dinner game.
  8. Schedule your meals and don't make children wait until they are overly hungry to eat. If you have snacks in the family, limit snacks to certain times of day or keep fresh fruit and vegetables cut up in the fridge for those who like to eat less more often.
  9. During a family meeting, get the whole family involved in planning ways to make mealtime enjoyable for everyone.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that they are not going to get in trouble at the table, so they don't have to sidetrack their parents with bad manners. The table is a fun place to be, and there are many positive ways to get attention by joining in and being part of the family.

Parenting Pointers

  1. If parents worry less about manners and more about creating a positive experience for family members, kids will quickly learn that meals are times when everyone wants to be together, and table manners will take care of themselves.
  2. You can help your child learn to listen to his or her feelings and body wisdom instead of training the child to be an overeater to please you or a picky eater to defeat you. Think of how many overweight adults were members of the "Clean Plate Club" as children and have completely lost touch with the meaning of the word "hungry."
  3. If you see mealtime as a time to make kids eat and to lecture about manners, the kids will probably pay you back with bad manners. If your attitude is that meals are one of the special times that families can share together, the kids probably reflect that thinking.

Booster Thoughts

Bonnie married a widower with six children. The oldest was eight years old, and the youngest were two-year-old twins. The mother of these children had died in childbirth when the twins were born. You can imagine how difficult it was to find a babysitter for six children, including baby twins. Even those who were desperate for a job did not stay long, so the children had not had the stability of consistent discipline before Bonnie became their new mother. This was especially evident during mealtime, which was a terrible ordeal because the children would fight, argue, and throw food at each other.

Bonnie had taught Adlerian/Dreikursian principles before she had a chance to practice them. Now she had her chance.

The first thing Bonnie did was hold a family meeting. She did not even discuss their mealtime behavior. She simply asked them to decide how much time they needed to eat their food after it was on the table. They talked it over and decided fifteen minutes was plenty of time. (They forgot to consider how much time it takes to fight, argue, and throw food.) They all willingly agreed to a family rule that dinner would be served at 6:00 p.m. and the table cleared at 6:15.

The next evening Bonnie and her husband ignored the fighting while they ate their food. (I know how difficult this is for parents to do.) At 6:15 Bonnie cleared the table. The children protested that they were still hungry and were not through eating. Bonnie kindly and firmly replied, "I am just following the rule we agreed on. I am sure you can make it until breakfast." She then sat in front of the refrigerator with a novel and earplugs for the rest of the evening.

The next night was a repeat of the previous night as the children tested to see if their new mother was for real. By the third night they knew she was, and they were so busy eating that they did not have time to fight, argue, or throw food.

There is a lovely sequel to this story. Six years later, I had the opportunity to stay with these children while their parents took a weekend vacation. They were so responsible and capable that I did not lift a finger the whole weekend.

The children prepared all the meals and did their chores without any interference from me. They showed me their meal and chore plan. They planned all their menus for a month during the first family meeting of the month. They all had a night to cook, except Mom (who did all the shopping) and the oldest boy (who had football practice).

I asked them if things always ran so smoothly. One of the girls told me that they used to have a rule that whoever cooked did not clean the kitchen. This caused problems because those who had the cleanup chore always complained about the messy cooks. They decided to change the rule so that the cook also cleaned the kitchen. This solved the complaints and gave everyone a longer break before it was their turn again. 1

1 From Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 192.

These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.