Step 1: Challenges in Specifying Expectation (continued)
Meal time (continued)
The third aspect of the target behavior is to assure the meal is eaten “within X minutes.” Teach each child what you expect by setting the timer or pointing out on the clock how long each has to finish eating. Remind them that they must stay at the table for the entire meal and that leaving means that child’s meal is over. Also remind them that success means a clean plate within the time limit and that, when done, they may have more of anything you served. This does not mean either child can demand any other type of food. The family should eat as you typically do, stifling any urge to prod your children to hurry so that you don’t reinforce dawdling.
If you plan to have dessert, serve your children a share if they stay at the table and complete the meal you served with enough time for sweets within the time limit. This way of handling dessert makes it like the rest of the meal; anything other than the original food on the children’ plates is available only if the first serving is completed. Avoid making dessert a direct reward for eating, a connection which may play a role in some childhood obesity.
Another point: to provide your children with the best chance of success, all family members should stay at the table and eat all the food on their plates, and each should fill his or her plate accordingly. The one exception for most families would be the cook, who may have occasions during meals to jump up to get things. This special role should be explained in simple terms to the children, with focus on how the cook benefits everyone by those efforts.
So far so good. Whenever either child eats the food provided within the time limit, your job will be to provide reinforcement for the success by praising and by commenting on the credits or tokens earned for being successful. Avoid lectures about how the child should have learned this long ago. You can amplify the reward value by commenting to others at the table about how pleasant it is to have your child there and eating so well. And if the child requests more of food he or she likes, the extra food itself becomes an additional reward.
This is the basic outline. At following meals, use the same idea, but gradually add a bit more of the foods you would like each child to eat. Over a matter of a few days, broaden the range of things you add, eventually serving what the rest of the family eats. Depending on each child, this could take a good while. Be patient and do not push too fast. Once a child gets used to eating what is presented in a reasonable time, you may notice that the choice of specific foods seems less and less important.
But what do you do if one or the other child complains or leaves the table? The answer is already mostly defined for you: the meal for that child is over. Once the child is gone, remove the plate from the table and meet any complaints by calmly repeating that once the child left the table the meal was over. Likely the child will look greatly pained and complain of being hungry – maybe even “starving” – and you can respectfully repeat that food will be available at the next meal of the day. You are likely to hear a good deal of fussing and it is very important that you do not participate. Start by telling (not asking) the child to leave the room. If there is resistance and continued complaining, calmly remove the child from the room and return to the table as soon as you can.
You may find yourself feeling very mean at this point and feeling sure that your child will suffer from hunger. You may be tempted to provide some snacks along the way to the next meal. If you do that, you will have become an “enabler” of the very behavior that you set out to eliminate, that of picky eating. While it may seem mean to withhold food, there are very few children in our part of the world who will suffer any real harm if they miss whatever part of a meal they don’t eat in this situation. Parents may need to make exceptions for children with diabetes or acid reflux or other eating related problems. For their parents, a discussion of the problem with the child’s physician is in order. While pickiness about food for such children can be serious enough to complicate their health care, solving this problem is all the more important for them. Almost any other child will survive if they don’t eat a whole meal. Far better a day or two with a little hunger than ongoing battles about eating, potentially the seeds for all sorts of long-term difficulties.
Typically parents who follow these steps in a calm and non-punitive fashion find that their children rapidly learn that it is in their best interests to eat as their parents expect. Success leads to improved nutrition and family interactions. It also helps prepare children for eating with people who may not serve macaroni and cheese for every meal. With these experiences, children gain confidence for meeting the social world on equal terms.