Stop Making Mealtime a Challenge (transcript included)

In this episode: Janet responds to a letter from an exasperated mother whose toddler won’t cooperate at mealtime.

Transcript of Respectful Parenting: Janet Lansbury Unruffled
Stop Making Mealtime a Challenge (courtesy of Torin Thompson, September 15, 2015)

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and in this episode of Unruffled, I’m going to answer a question about mealtime challenges.

Okay, here’s a question I received on Facebook:

“I am hoping for some instructive insight. Mealtimes continue to be a challenge. Here’s a new one with our 27-month-old. He now refuses to come to the table and sit down in his chair during mealtimes. We’ve tried to let it be and pack up his food if he doesn’t come back again later, but he ends up HANGRY.” (She has this in all capital letters. Now I learned something through this question, because I glanced at it and I saw this word “hangry” and first I thought she was misspelling the word, but then I looked it up in the Urban Dictionary and it does actually mean, and all of you probably already knew this, it means hungry and angry at the same time, like when you’re waiting in a restaurant and your food isn’t coming. So…Anyway, her son ends up hangry), “so now we are feeding him basically through distraction. At the windowsill, following him around in the park, in his ‘yes’ space while he’s playing, etc. When we do that, he finishes his entire meal, so clearly he is hungry, but I absolutely hate the fact that that’s what we have to do now. Perhaps we can be more consistent with limit-setting, but when he gets hangry, it’s so difficult to get anything done. Thanks so much.”

Okay, so what is going on here is first of all, “mealtimes continue to be a challenge.” Mealtimes ideally should never be a challenge. There’s no challenge involved. All that’s involved is we set up the situation the way we expect mealtimes to go. You know, I recommend sitting down, the child has to sit down and stay sitting down until the child is done. No throwing food, no playing with food, and that’s pretty much it, and the only food that is offered is food that the parent has deemed healthy for the child, small portions of each.

The rest of mealtime has nothing to do with us, it’s between our child and his tummy. Anything else that we are feeling around this or any agendas that we have, other than presenting mealtime and letting our child decide how much he wants to eat and leaving it at that, trusting our child to handle the eating part of mealtime, anything else we try to do is going to create issues, so there shouldn’t be any struggles, but there are, because this mother, and perhaps the father, too, they’re invested in their son eating a certain amount and they feel like it’s their job to get the food into him. Therefore, they’re creating a situation that is ruled by their son’s feelings and,basically, he’s got them over a barrel here, because they are so invested in getting food into his mouth, and what’s happening is following him around in the park, distracting… I mean, this is not how we want to treat our human person child. This is maybe seeing him as a wild animal and showing him that we’re just going to follow you around, but actually even a wild animal would sit and stop and pay attention to the food and eat if the wild animal was hungry, so in a way this is more like a plant. It’s up to us, we’ve got to get that plant food in there or this plant is going to wither. Children aren’t like that; children are people just like you and me, and only our children know how much they need to eat each time.

So to back this up, the most important thing to start out with is to recognize that these parents are creating this issue, and they’re making it worse because they’re ruled by their son’s feelings, this hangry feeling that he has, which, a lot of it is, there is some hunger in there I’m sure, but there’s more anger than hunger at this point, and the anger needs to be expressed. The anger isn’t about that mealtime didn’t go his way, that’s not what it’s really about. That may be what it seems to be about, but it’s actually probably more about, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have leaders here. You guys are afraid of my feelings. This is really scary. Why are you treating me this way?” Those kinds of feelings that, again, aren’t conscious, but are what this anger is really about. So to back this up requires clarity, confidence, belief in your child and understanding that he may have one day where he’s pretty hungry and pretty angry too, pretty hangry, but if we’re clear and we’re comfortable and we’re honest, there will only be one day like this, if we’re consistent as well.

So set up beforehand the rules that you expect at mealtime. “We are going to be having dinner in a few minutes. We know that we’ve let you move around and we’ve tried these different things with you. We’re not going to do that anymore. That’s not healthy for you. We expect you to sit for however long you want to be eating. As soon as you’re done, please feel free to get up and go. If you need our help, we’ll help you. If you get up during mealtime, we’re going to know that you’re done eating.”

So be very clear ahead of time. This is for him, but it’s also for you to feel very comfortable in following through, for you to get to that place where you can really now let go and stick with your plan, especially let go of whatever feelings he has in response, because those are never healthy for us to try to control.

So then, let’s say that he comes and he sits and then he jumps up right away. Then you might say, “I see you.” First of all, I would be paying attention to him during mealtime. Children this age, they still need our full attention during meal time. Sometimes the family meal doesn’t work as well for this age as it does for a four-year-old or a five-year-old, so I would be paying attention regardless, even if you’re all there, I would be paying attention to him. I would see when he starts to get up, and I would remind him, “Oh, it looks like you’re trying to get up. Remember, we don’t want you to get up until you’re done. Are you saying you’re done?” Then right there, your child will clearly know that he’s either going to be telling you he’s done or he’s going to sit down and eat some more. Trust him. Believe him. Believe what he tells you. He may get up before he’s done again because it’s been so different other times and he needs to test this with you again.

So if he does, you’ve got to say, “Okay, I’m going to help you get down. Thanks for letting us know you’re done.”

There’s no reason to be mad at him. There’s no reason to be worried about him. This guy knows what he’s doing in terms of eating. All children do. It’s natural. They do have this communication between their mind and their tummy, but we get in the way with our agendas, so trust him, believe him.

When he’s hangry, acknowledge. “You’re saying you want to eat. Wow, you’re really hungry now.” You know, even though it’s two minutes after he left the table. You don’t have to say that part. “You are really, really hungry. Oh, you seem really upset. You don’t like that, that we’re not feeding you right now.”

Talk to him, talk to this power player that he is. He’s a power player. Talk to that guy. Don’t, “Oh, you’re so hungry,” don’t give him the poor baby thing or worry about him. “Maybe he didn’t know, maybe he didn’t understand.” Children understand the very first time. It’s the same with children that throw food down or play with their cup or pour water out. It’s not an oopsy. Maybe the very first time they did it, maybe it was an oopsy. But after that, they know. They totally know what they’re doing. So, you know, these fears tend to come into our mind and that, oh gosh, what if he really was hungry and he just forgot? Or what if she didn’t mean to throw the food off the table? Unless you’re throwing food off your plate, there’s no reason in the world a child would think that’s an okay thing to do. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad to do it, it means that they’re impulsive, they’re testing, they have their reasons that we won’t maybe know exactly in that moment, but they know that they’re doing it. So if you can be 100% comfortable with how you’ve laid it out, then he gets this gift of being able to express these other feelings, that, again, I don’t believe have anything to do with “You didn’t let me stand up while I was eating.” That’s baloney to use a food word, that’s baloney.

So the statement you made that it’s impossible to get any food in him – again, take this off your job description about food getting in him. Your business is to present the rules about eating and follow through, it’s not to get food in him. This is out of your control. Children need us to trust this unless we want to create food issues and a lack of focus. Feeding him basically through distraction, as this mother says she’s doing – “At the windowsill, following him around in the park, in his ‘yes’ space while he’s playing, etc.” – this is actively teaching your son not to focus on what he’s doing, not to pay attention to life, not to be a focused guy, not to be present with what’s happening to his body. These are dangerous lessons that will not help your son – won’t help him in school, won’t help him with eating, won’t help him with anything. These habits are, again, all the result of your fears, which I do understand, but I believe that you must 100% let go of because you are actually creating the issues here that you are concerned about: a child that has eating issues. He doesn’t. He has a need for boundaries like all children 27 months of age.

And so you say “perhaps we can be more consistent with limit setting, but when he gets hangry, it’s so difficult to get anything done.” You’re getting blinded by the feelings that are healthy and need to be expressed. Let the feelings be. Let him be hangry. You’ve done your best to present food to him, you’ve been very clear, you’ve been very honest about, “I know we used to do this and that and we’re not doing it anymore.” That is your job. Let him do his job. Trust him to do his job.

A big part of his job at this age is to express his feelings and young children are very, very good at this. We get in their way when we try to make things work for them so they won’t express these feelings that need to be expressed.

This issue around limit setting with him, around mealtimes that you’re having is going to, or if it hasn’t already, it’s going to bleed into all kinds of other behavior issues during the day, because when children are in the situation where they have, are wielding all this power in an area where it isn’t healthy for them and it’s very uncomfortable for them, they’re going to be constantly searching for a leader. It’s a huge distraction. It makes it harder to play, much harder to eat, harder to sleep, harder to do anything. It makes it hard to be a little kid when you don’t have a leader. Be the leader here that trusts him to know his body. That’s all you have to do. In a way, this should be easier. Take this out of your job description. Putting food in him, getting food in him, is not in your job description. Let him do this. You just do your job and let him do his.

Thanks so much for your question and I hope this was helpful, at least to somebody. And as you may know, you can read my books No Bad Kids, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, those books will give you the basics around mealtime and around limits, both of the things that we’re talking about today.

So thank you and don’t forget, we can do this!


1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi, I’m facing a similar situation with my 8 month old who just won’t sit and eat. I want her to start understanding that she needs to sit at meal times. How do I go about doing that?
    We have a high chair but she won’t sit for long
    Tried sitting on the floor and feeding her but she don’t sit still for long either. Meals are eaten only thru distraction
    Please help!

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