Meal Time Struggles? Three Cornerstones To Live By

  • Parents Only

By: Megan Tuohey, Relationship Psychologist

How smoothly meals go is a function of how your child is feeling on any given day—and how you respond. Being able to respond consistently because you have a clear view of how meals work in your family, will lower conflict and stress immediately.

The thing is, children have little control over their lives, really, all they can control is their toileting, sleep and food. So if you find yourself in a constant gridlock about food, chances are the relationship between you and your child is under stress and strain, likely resulting in your child feeling pressure and control.

Pressure and control are twin dynamics. Pressure is a form of control. And kids who feel pressured often respond with control of their own. When faced with gridlock, parents often choose leniency, because it seems like the opposite of pressure. This is a myth, it’s not. Structure is the opposite of pressure.

Structure is calm. It is comprised of rules that are applied consistently. There is no fight.

Think of a healthy structure as the car-seat rule: You and your kids both know that they ride in car seats. After the initial struggle, everyone accepts the car seat. You need the same kind of rules for eating.

In an ideal world, your children would eat without fussing. The fussing comes from fear of the unknown, battles against all the rules around eating and pressure to do it ‘right’.

Here’s a three part plan of what to do, when you find yourself in a constant struggle with your children at mealtimes:

1. Identify the source of the struggle

Don’t assume you’re fighting over the food, even when it seems like you are. Look at the relationship you hold with your child and consider whether it’s in negativity or positivity. Being able to move your relationship towards positivity will likely improve the overall experience of the meal.

This is not about leniency, but more about an overall feeling of connection to each other, something that being locked in a power battle, will break.

2. Eliminate power battles

The easiest way to do this is to offer an alternative acceptable food at each mealtime, called a backup, and to ensure that every night there is something on the plate the child is comfortable eating, that is nutritious.

In our house, we serve everyone the same food, every day. This means, with the exception of sandwiches/breakfast cereal, we don’t cook something specific for someone, ever as a replacement for a meal that is not deemed ‘acceptable’ by a child. It’s not an option.

What this means is there needs to be something on the dinner plate that everyone likes. So for example, if you are cooking a roast for dinner, it should contain at least one item that your children feel comfortable eating. This means when they get to the table, they know they can start with something. Getting started on a plate of food can be the hardest part for many.

If a child doesn’t want to eat the rest of their dinner, we agree easily with them that they don’t have to, but a different meal is not provided for them.

So the option becomes a choice that we as parents, can live with, and so can our children.

They can have their dinner, or they can have greek yogurt. This is my backup. The idea is to figure out an alternative that the child(ren) quite likes, but is plain and readily available in the fridge at all times. This means they won’t go hungry, but the food isn’t inspiring enough to skip dinner.

When the power battle to eat is eliminated, the child will start to feel like they can make choices over their food, and you set the parameters about what these choices are. The backup gives your child control over what they eat, because they know exactly what the options are. It gives them the freedom to try new foods, because there is always an out, the backup.

Whatever your backup food, it must be the same every single time. Pick one food otherwise it will undermine your efforts if it changes each time. It must always be available. Greek yogurt stays fresh for a long time, so choose something with a longish shelf life. The backup must be nutritious – so you don’t worry if they have it and it must be a no-cook item and it must not be a preferred food. Instead, find something they’ll eat, but is boring.

3. Eliminate convincing – replace with simple rules

Many parents get caught in the negotiation trap. Don’t do it. It turns into a power battle, and we know that always ends in struggle.

Instead of negotiating how much food your child should have at mealtimes, focus on the structure of how food is offered during the day.

Your job is to plan out food that is nutritious and varied, with a good variety of new and familiar. Think about how food is served in your house, and put a structure around it. This might mean regular times of day for snacks and meals, and it might mean a set of foods that belong in snacks and a set that belong in meals.

If your child wanted to finish dinner and you were concerned they hadn’t eaten enough food, you would gently remind them that when dinner is over there is no more food until breakfast, so to make sure they eat enough.


About Megan: Megan is a Relationship Psychologist who specialises in women. She focuses particularly on the relationship you have with yourself, your partner, your kids. When she’s not writing, you will find her working in her online coaching business for women, reading or playing with her kids and high-fiving her hubby for another excellent day. You can read more of her work at