Tips for mealtimes with little ones

Dinnertime can be a time of the day when you have tired kids and tired parents and just getting through it seems like an achievement. But dinnertime can also be one of the few times of the day when the whole family is together. There are some very simple steps we can take as parent to set mealtime up to be as an enjoyable experience as possible.

Having 5 kids under 10 at one stage of my parenting life, I have certainly had a lot of experience and below I share what has worked for my family and for many others that I have shared these tips with. Some of the tips may run counter to the “ideal” dinner time you may have imagined in family life, but I urge you to give them a try and see the difference they make!

Remove the battle lines

Young kids have much of their days controlled by adults. They are told when to go to bed, when to bath, when to nap and have boundaries on what they can and can’t do. For some kids eating or not eating is one of the few things than have control over.

As a parent, if we go into dinner with the view that we will make them eat their entire meal; we are essentially erecting battle lines. If a child wants to reclaim control in their day, they will meet you at the battle line and refuse to eat. Sitting at the table with a child until they eat everything on their plate becomes a battle of wills.

We have always taken an approach to dinnertime that it is our role as parents to serve up a healthy meal. It is the child’s choice to eat the meal or not. We don’t make them something else to eat if they do not like the meal offered, nor can they eat something else later that night before they go to bed but we do not force them to eat what is on their plate or bribe them with dessert.

Many parents will automatically think – the child will starve! But kids will eat if they are hungry and unless they have some significant issues they will not starve themselves. You will be surprised how much more likely a child is to eat, when they feel in control of much they can or can’t eat.

Reduce the size

As parents we are not often great at estimating how much food is enough for ourselves, let alone for a small child. It is recommended that once you have served up a child’s meal you can halve what you have initially dished up and that is more likely to be an appropriate meal size for a child.

A child will find a large plate of food overwhelming. If overwhelmed, they are more likely to refuse out right to eat anything. It is better for them to have a smaller size meal, eat all of it and ask for more if they are hungry. Parents generally feel better to because there is less food waste.

Go for self-serve

Self-serve meals work brilliantly for younger kids. These type of meals allow them to have greater control over what they eat. Easy meals like those listed below work well as kids can choose what items and the quantity of each they want to put on their plate:

  • Tacos
  • Chicken schnitzel and veggie sticks
  • Homemade hamburgers and salads
  • Pan fried fish and veggie sticks
  • Falafels and salad

Keep it simple

While we may prefer to eat fancier meals with more complex tastes, this is unlikely to be the favourite style of meals for most young kids. Keeping meals simpler during this stage of their life will make mealtime more enjoyable.

This isn’t to say that you cannot expose kids to new tastes and food combinations. Self serve meals are a perfect way to introduce new foods, for example in one chicken schnitzel meal you could add a serving of kimchi from them to choose from or add a Moroccan chickpea salad with the falafel meal. Ask each child to simply have a tiny taste of the dish and assure them they don’t have to eat it if they don’t like it. This makes them feel in control again and that is safe to try it.

Eat with them early

It can seem ridiculous to adults to eat dinner at 5:30pm, but this is a perfectly reasonable time to eat dinner for little kids. Young kids can almost move beyond hunger when over tired and as most parents know, with an increase in tiredness comes a decrease in their ability to regulate their behavior, making meal time more challenging.

With working commitments for some families, eating at 5:30pm may not always be possible, but eating as absolutely as early as your schedule allows and eating with your kids is one of the most important things you can do.

It can seem easier and more pleasant to feed the kids first then eat later on your own, but kids miss so much from this. Sitting down and eating together as a family has so many documented positive benefits for children including boosting vocabulary, reducing childhood obesity and combatting stress.

And most importantly if you can keep mealtime simple and light hearted, it can actually be an enjoyable time of the day for families.


Nicole Avery is a Melbourne mum to five beautiful kids aged 8 to 18. She is the master organiser behind the popular parenting blog Planning With Kids and the author of a book by the same name, where she shares tips and tricks for organising the chaos of family life.