Mealtime can be pretty frustrating when you have a picky eater can’t it?

Like, I’m pretty sure you have one or two more important things that you’d rather focus on.  (Um, like maybe eating your own meal?)

The problem is, when your child isn’t eating it can be hard to think about anything else.

Here’s what dinnertime looks like for a lot of families (tell me if it sounds familiar):

  1. Dinner is ready.
  2. You call your kids to the table and everyone sits down to eat.  
  3. Everyone digs in.  Everyone that is – except your picky eater.
  4. The stress and frustration start to creep in….

…and then everything just goes downhill.

What was supposed to be an enjoyable family dinner, is now starting to get a little tense.

Feeling exasperated, (and with both you and Miss. Picky on the verge of a melt-down), you turn into the parent you don’t want to be:

  • Bribing or begging her to eat her vegetables. (You have to eat your broccoli and then you can have more bread.)
  • Negotiation about how many bites to eat. (Four. Okay three. FINE, two – but make sure they’re big ones.)
  • Or simply not being able to hide your annoyance when she says she’s not hungry.

Whatever the case, the opportunity to have a pleasant meal where you and your family can laugh, connect and share each other’s day has all but disappeared.

And everyone leaves the table unhappy. (And annoyingly, your kiddo still didn’t eat much of anything.)


(It’s okay, let it allllllllllll out.)

Now, let’s move on and focus on fixing this, because I KNOW you don’t want to be frustrated with your child.  

And I totally get it. Because I know what that frustration feels like.

When I was first getting into the swing of feeding Tyson, I felt like he was hungry ALL THE TIME.

Yet when we sat down for meals, he wasn’t eating (and instead whining, crying…and throwing things.  Can I tell you how much I hate the throwing?)

So yeah,  I would get pretty frustrated.

Of course I would try to remain calm, but then my voice would slowly start getting more and more high-pitched and edgy to the point where I was doing that whole “yelling without yelling” thing. (You know what I’m talking about right?  That point where your voice is dripping with so much pent-up annoyance and frustration so you might as well be yelling!)

But you know what changed things?

I made ONE simple adjustment to how I approached feeding.  And this made all the difference in how smoothly mealtimes went.

A “flip-mealtime-on-its-head” kind of difference.

It’s actually one of the foundation strategies that I implement with my clients ASAP when we work together. Because it’s THAT powerful.

And what is this magical strategy?

You need to establish set meal and snack times.

Want to jump ahead? Download the FREE Mealtime Routine Cheat Sheet:

{It’s ridiculously simple in theory.  But I find that a lot of parents find it challenging to implement consistently – which we will get to later in the post so keep reading!}

Wait!!  Before you write me off as just some super controlling and rigid parent, or assume that this won’t work for your kids, hold tight and let me break it down.

Why set meal and snack times are KEY for raising healthy eaters

There are a couple of major reasons WHY this small tweak can change the dynamics of mealtime for your family. The first and most important is:

1. Your child will actually be hungry.

It’s true.  One of the big reasons why kids don’t eat (or try new things) at meals is because they ever have an empty stomach.

So let me ask you this: how many times a day do you offer food to your child?

I’m willing to bet it’s quite a few. It’s pretty common for kids to have food available to them all day long.

A lot of parents constantly offer food because they are worried about lack of intake overall (particularly with extreme picky eaters or underweight kids).  If this is you, you’re probably hoping that if you just keep offering, at some point your child will eat something, anything. 

Or, you could be the parent that is dealing with a child who is constantly whining “I’m hunnnnnnnnnngry”.  And the easiest way to get them to be quiet, is to just give them a snack, right?

(No judgement here. It can be really hard to to figure out whether our kids are getting the right amount of food in a day. And it feels like it’s your parental duty to feed your little one when they say they are hungry.)

But the result can be an all you can eat buffet, where kids have the option of eating whenever and wherever they want.

And why is this a problem?

Because we are raising a generation of grazers.  A generation of kids that they are always partially full and don’t really know what hunger feels like – and who are coming to the table without much of an appetite.

Which can totally wreck havoc on our attempts to raise a healthy eater.

Because if they aren’t hungry, they aren’t going to be interested in trying new things or eating a wide variety of food.

Which means they are missing out on the opportunity to learn to like new foods.  Which means they will just continue to eat the same safe and familiar foods over and over and over.

I want you to imagine the last time you went to your favourite restaurant.  You probably ate less at lunch so that you would be nice and hungry by the time dinner rolled around.  By the time you arrived at the restaurant, you were probably salivating with anticipation.


Because food tastes soooooo much better when you are hungry. (And even the foods you aren’t as keen on are definitely more appealing.)

Do you see my point?

And before you go thinking that I am advocating that you go and starve your child, keep in mind that there is absolutely nothing wrong with kids being a little hungry.

In fact it’s a good thing.

And you will be AMAZED at how much more your kids will eat – and try! – when their little tummies have room to spare.

This really was a game changer for Tyson when he was younger.  When I eliminated the constant snacking, his appetite at meals soared and he became such an adventurous little eater.  Even now, I see a huge improvement in both of my kid’s curiosity about the meal when we’ve stuck to our schedule. When they are hungry, they look forward to dinner and will try a little bit of everything – even if it’s not their favourite.

2. Reassurance that they won’t starve

So we’ve established that hungry is good.  But starving?  Not so good.  Anxious about when their next meal is? Definitely not good.

A well thought-out meal and snack routine (based on your child’s age, appetite etc) provides peace of mind, for both you, and your picky eater.

Even if they don’t eat much (or anything) at one snack or mealtime, you both know that they will get another opportunity to eat soon.  You won’t have to worry about them being too hungry, and they will feel safe and reassured that there will always be another time to eat coming up.

And, a set routine means you won’t accidentally “forget” or wait too long between eating opportunities. (Nobody likes dealing with a “hangry” child.  Nobody.)

All of which helps put an end to the arguments, bribing and power struggles, which can come along with feeling anxious about the amount of food eaten at one particular meal.

If kids know that their food intake not contingent on one specific meal, that particular meal doesn’t hold the same kind of pressure .  And less pressure and anxiety means they are more likely to eat.  Funny how these things work, isn’t it?

(So be sure to review the schedule with your kids so that they have an idea of when meals and snacks are going to happen.  Transparency and trust in the feeding relationship is important.)

Putting this into action

So how does this whole snack and meal routine thing work?

Let me walk you through the 5 Steps to making this happen:

Step 1 – Create the schedule

The first step is to create a set schedule for meal and snack times (or as I like to call them – eating opportunities), based on what works for your family.

Of course, this is going to be different for every family, and will depend on children’s age, metabolism, family schedule etc.

[Remember – eating opportunities shouldn’t be too far away from each other but they shouldn’t be too close together either.  We want peace of mind, but we still want them to be hungry.  Yep, it’s a fine balance!]

How many hours should you schedule between eating opportunities?  Enter your e-mail to download a FREE sample meal and snack schedule (based on your child’s age) including tips on establishing an effective eating routine.

Step 2 – Communicate the new schedule

As with any major disruption to a child’s normal routine, providing them with a bit of notice (and an explanation) can go a long way.

So a few days before you put the schedule into action, sit down as a family and review how things are going to change.

Here’s an idea of what you can say:

Hey everyone, I’ve noticed that our eating patterns have been a bit all over the place, so to try and make things easier and more consistent for everyone, we’re going to try something new.  We’re going to have our meals and snacks at set times during the day, so we can all know what to expect when it comes to eating.  We’re going to start this new routine on Tuesday.  Any questions?”

Asking for input can go a long way towards getting your kids on board with this type of change.

Step 3 – Implement the new schedule

Once the routine is established, it’s time to put things into action.

The key to making this work is to take a page from Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility Model (Ellyn is pretty much the guru on raising healthy eaters).

Basically, when it comes to feeding, you (the parent) are in charge of the following:

  • When your child eats (the schedule you just established!)
  • Where your child eats (ideally at the table – but that’s another blog post!)
  • and What your child eats (a wide variety of real, healthy food)

And your child is responsible for:

  • How much they eat (from what you have provided)
  • Whether they eat (they may choose not to!)

So how does this play out in real life?

You plan what food is being served at your set meal and snack time (always making sure to serve at least one thing you know they like), and then walk away!

Kids decide what to eat from the choices given, and should be allowed to eat as much as they want.

Now here’s the clincher: once they are finished, they get nothing else until the next snack or meal (except water). No snacking. No grazing.  The kitchen is closed!

(Now before you go panicking about them being hungry, remember, if you’ve spaced out the meals and snacks correctly there will be another eating opportunity coming up soon.)

Step 4 – Stay consistent

This is definitely the hardest part.  I still struggle with not feeding my kids when they say they’re hungry.

Just remember, they probably ARE a little hungry – but there is nothing wrong with that.

And as hard as it can be to say no to a child begging for food, you have to stay strong and be consistent.  I think a lot of you would agree that a lot of kids don’t actually know the difference between actually being “hungry” versus “not full” or even “bored.”

So in these situations, you just want to be kind but firm in reminding them of the routine.

For example, if little Erica didn’t eat much at breakfast but is asking you for a snack 15 minutes later, you can confidently say:

 “I hear that you’re hungry.  Snack time is in a couple of hours, so why don’t we get the paints out and make a picture while we wait?”.

And also keep in mind that it is not going to hurt them if they choose to eat nothing at one meal or snack.  If you’ve made sure to include at least one food that you know they like, they’ve made the choice not to eat whatever it is that you served.  So it’s a good opportunity to remind them about your routine:

Ethan, I’m sorry that you feel hungry.  We just finished snack and dinnertime is just around the corner, so I will let you know as soon as it is ready.  Maybe next time you should eat a little more during snack-time to keep your tummy full in-between”

(As an aside, I love these tips from parenting expert Kelly Bourne, where she describes how to say “yes” when you mean “no”. They really apply well here.)

Another tactic for keeping your child busy while you get a meal on the table (rather than feeding them to stop them from bugging you for food) is to get him involved in preparing for the meal – setting the table, emptying the dishwasher, helping with food prep. Heck, asking them to help out may result in them avoiding the kitchen, so either way, the pestering stops 🙂

It may feel challenging at first (change always does), but if you stay consistent it won’t be long until your kids get into the swing of the new schedule.

Accepting a routine can take a few days to a week, but if you stick with it they will learn that there will always be another chance to eat and will learn to manage their appetite accordingly.

And believe me, the begging for snacks will stop. 

Which will allow them to actually focus on whatever it is they are doing in between meals and snacks. (Whether that’s homework or just playing and having fun!)

Step 5 – Allow for some flexibility

Now mama, when I say that you should stay consistent, I want to clarify that I don’t mean stick to the schedule all the time, in every circumstance, no matter what.

You’re a parent – not a dictator!

And real life parents have to be flexible.

So I encourage you to stay consistent as much as possible.  However, there are going to be times where the schedule just doesn’t work, or sticking to it would be at the expense of another important aspect of developing good habits.

For example:

  • You’re getting used to the routine. You will likely have to make small tweaks to make it work for your family.
  • Days when things don’t run as planned. You have to be out the door early so you eat breakfast early, or an after-school activity means a late dinner.  You should make adjustments on these occasions, but maintain the same number of hours between eating opportunities.
  • You’re going to a friend’s house for dinner.  Are you going to ask them to serve dinner at 5:30pm because that is “what’s on the schedule?”  Probably not – that would be a bit annoying wouldn’t it?  It this situation, I would try and find out ahead of time what time dinner will be served and then just adjust the other meals and snacks accordingly.
  • You’re at the cottage and someone brings out popsicles.  It’s not snack time.  Do you tell your kids they can’t have any?  Probably not.  Boundaries are important, but being super restrictive can undermine your efforts to raise a healthy eater.

So stick to the schedule – but within reason.  In the words of Ellyn Satter, “when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers!”

Admittedly, at first I found this difficult to implement and stay consistent with. I had to make some adjustments as I figured out what worked for our family (and my kid’s appetites).  I had to make some adjustments as I figured out what worked for our family (and my kid’s appetites!)

Now, this routine is a completely normal part of my kid’s day.  They rarely question it!  Of course, Tyson doesn’t quite have the concept of time figured out and sometimes it can be really tough to hold him off when he is pestering me about “when snack time is”.  However, every day I see the benefits of being consistent because my kids come to meals hungry, and look forward to coming to the table.

So there you have it – the number one thing you can do to start you picky eater on the path to eating better.

Which means they’ll eat more at meals…

They’ll be more adventurous about food…

They’ll be curious about new foods…

They’ll be less anxious about having enough to eat…

They’ll behave better at the table…

And it will be a more pleasant mealtime experience.

Need help figuring out the ideal spacing between meals and snacks?  Enter your e-mail to download a FREE sample meal and snack schedule (based on your child’s age) including tips on establishing an effective eating routine.



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