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Making Mealtime a Positive Experience

By Abby Dalton Lee Lum, M.A., BCBA, LBS

Let’s face it, mealtime with children can be a challenging time for all parents. Gone are the days when moms and dads could spend hours preparing a delicious and healthy meal attractive to young eaters. Parents today are maintaining multiple schedules of homework and extracurricular activities while preparing meals quickly and often rushing to get children to eat. Add to the mix a child with special needs and the situation gets stressful fast. Trust us, you are not alone if you are feeling overwhelmed.

There are several easily implemented strategies you can use to help mealtime go more smoothly. Here are just a few:

Keep a Consistent Mealtime

Establishing mealtime as part of a consistent routine is key. By eating meals at the same time and place, kids (and parents) are able to predict expectations, and that can help minimize resistant behaviors. It is challenging at times with all of the activities and other responsibilities you have, but eating at approximately the same time each day is extremely helpful when you have a child who is resistant to mealtime. Parents can also support a child’s understanding of the schedule by using pictures or written schedules. If there is difficulty in establishing a mealtime schedule, parents can offer only preferred foods initially at mealtime until the schedule is established. If a child is resistant to any form of structured meal, parents may need to start by pairing the eating environment with activities and items your child prefers before expecting them to sit down for a meal.

Have Scheduled Snacks

It is also helpful to establish a snack schedule for kids. Eliminating snacks between meals and scheduling snacks will increase a child’s motivation to eat at the scheduled times. In other words, if a child is snacking throughout the day, he or she will not be as hungry when it is time for scheduled meals or snacks. If your child has free access to snacks, he or she also learns that avoiding meals is okay because he will be able to eat preferred foods later.

Remember “Grandma’s Rule”

Grandma always had some good ideas. In ABA, we use Grandma’s Rule, also known as the Premack Principle. This means that a child first has to do something he or she does not want to do before he or she can do something he does want to do. For example, “First eat your dinner, then you can have dessert” or “First you eat your chicken, then you can have a french fry.” A visual picture schedule or prompt can help here during meal time. When using this simple strategy, be sure your child does not have access to the preferred item at any other time. For example, if you are using cookies as your preferred item and your child had cookies as their snack an hour before dinner, he or she will not be as motivated to do what they are being asked in order to get the cookie since he just had some. However, if your child has not had any cookies for days, the cookies will be more motivating, and therefore the child will be more likely to do what he is being asked to do.

Use a “Token Economy”

Using a token economy like a sticker chart can also be extremely helpful. Be sure to identify what specific behaviors you are looking to reward (i.e. coming to table, sitting at table for a specific amount of time, eating a certain amount of bites, finishing a meal). Make sure the child knows what he or she needs to do to earn the tokens or stickers. When possible, have the children involved in choosing the reward.

When using these tips, be sure to provide specific praise and attention for the child when he or she is doing what is expected and withhold attention for any unexpected or undesirable behaviors. With some consistency and thoughtful preparation, mealtime doesn’t have to be stressful. It can be a time to learn good behaviors while enjoying quality food and quality time together.