Meal Time Dilemma

Updated on August 20, 2007
K.S. asks from Bellingham, WA
13 answers

At least once a week, due to my husband's work schedule, I try to prepare a well liked family dinner. My 4 year old son, who is VERY picky, usually gets to pick the meal. When we all sit down to dinner my son decides that he doesn't want to eat and makes a big fuss, crying, playing around, and more crying. My husband yells at him to quit and tells him that he'll go to his room if he doesn't stop, which never happens. I tell my husband to stop talking to him because that eggs him on more and I tell my son to eat. Tonight I finally had to get up and leave the table. I was done eating, but I was tired of hearing them both go round and round. My son also has issues with thinking that he can't chew his food and wants to spit most everything out, which I tell him he can't and he finally swallows it and is fine. Can anyone out there give me some dinner time suggestions on how to handle this? I am so at my wits end with it all that I almost just want to stop doing the family dinner thing all together and have my son eat his usual food at his usual time and my husband and I eat later. Please help!

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answers from Seattle on

I would make the dinner table a special place where none of the negative behaviors are acceptable. While sitting and eating meals, the rules of manner, respect, peace and ability for everyone to enjoy their meal must apply. It takes dicipline stick to it-ness for this to work. You cannot cave in, then they will know you really mean it. Unacceptable behavior. That is what is not allowed while sitting at the meal. Use those two words, they worked miracles with my family. It actually worked. The person refusing to follow the rules, must leave the table, without their meal or desert, so the others can enjoy in peace, their meal. They will be allowed back if they can control themselves. I felt like just giving up but am so glad I did not. They saw I wasnt going to cave and knew they would really have to follow the rules here or they were going to lose out. Shocker! Stick with it. T

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answers from Spokane on

My only question is why do you only eat together one time a week? If your husband can't make it home for dinner, why can't you and your son still have a family meal at the table? It sounds as if he is acting out for Daddy's attention. My husband also works a rather odd schedule and isn't home at dinner time. But I still fix the meal and eat it at the table with my kids. I put my husbands plate in a warm oven and he eats it when he gets home. I would try having a family dinner everynight. Even if it is just the two of you. And never reward negative behavior. But when he acts well at the table reward him, and when your husband threatens to send him to his room, follow through. It won't hurt him to go to bed a bit hungry. Especially since he probably has breakfast lunch and snacks. He will learn that he cannot behave badly at the table and still eat. Also, desert can be an extremely good tool at teaching manners. if my kids behave at dinner and eat like they are supposed to they get desert. If they don't eat or misbehave, then no desert. I have three kids, 6,5, and 3 and my baby is just learning about table manners but she is catching on. My oldest is my picky one and he frequently leaves the table without desert, but he now realizes that his choices are responsible for the outcome. We are very big on letting our kids know that every action has a consequence. My 3 year old is learning that as well. My advise is to stay consistent and be firm. You are the adult and therefore are to teach him the proper behaviors. reward for the good, praise him when he does well, but let him know what is expected and follow through with the punishments. Good luck and don't give up! I know it is hard, it took me a long time to get the kids to sit at a table and we still have our off days. But you can do it.

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answers from Seattle on


Here are things that work for me: 1.) my son has to have at least one bit of everything (sometimes we negotiate more bites)before he leaves the table
2.) We sometimes do "taste tests" at dinner time. Everyone gets to give their opinion

For what it's worth...




answers from Seattle on

First note: I also have a very picky 4 year old. Recently, I'm trying to get him to eat a better variety of foods and I'm giving him whatever *I* decide to make (as he used to pick out what we would eat too) and it was about three weeks of tantrums before he realized that if he doesn't eat what I'm giving him, he's going to go hungry for a meal. (What I usually did was give him something I knew he'd eat for lunch and then give him something that I wasn't sure that he'd eat for dinner, then switch it up the next day, so Lunch would be the one he wasn't fond of and dinner was good. He was always getting something to eat, but he never knew what or when there would be a food he might not like. We're still working on it, but I'm glad I'm doing it now when I still have "power" over him to help him choose good foods. Anyway,

Second part: Family dinner. Not having a dining room, we don't eat together at the same table in my family. We do, however, all eat at the same time. But if my fiance isn't home when it's time to eat, we still eat at the same time. When he comes home, he'll eat and that's that. That way, the kids get the routeine of it. They have a small table that they eat at and it's in our living room during meal times. We usually sit on the couch in the living room. So technicially we're eating together. They know that they have to behave at the table though. I totally understand where you are coming from though with the "circling" your husband and son are doing. My fiance does this with my son too, and I just have to remind him (a lot) that he's arguing with a 4 year old. It's unproductive and it's going to get him no where. ESPECIALLY if he threats and doesn't follow through. It's not going to hurt your son if he misses a meal here and there. He'll get the hint and will eventually stop misbehaving. Instead of using desert as a reward (in our overweight driven society, it's a really bad idea *in my opinion* to offer sweets as a reward to good behaviour.) you can use stickers or little toys that he might like. (matchbox cars, or dollar store toys, there's plenty of ways to get stickers and smaller fun stuff for cheap.) We sometimes give a bigger toy as a reward if they've done really good, but not every time. We do always give them a reward if they were good when we go out to a resturant to eat though.

Ok, that's my two cents. lol. . .



answers from Seattle on

Hi K.!

My daughter sounds exactly like your son so I dont know what advice to give. We started giving her little goals and that has seemed to help. She loves to count so I will tell her like ok 4 more bites and then you can be done, and she will stop talking eat her food and be done. She will be four in Nov. so if you are looking for someone to play with in Oak Harbor we would love to!



answers from Seattle on

Hi, K.. I have the same issues. What we do is, I will make dinner and if he eats, great but if not we tell him to go play or sit at the dinner table and talk with us.
Most of the time, I leave a plate on the table, each breakfast; lunch & dinner, for my son. He is very picky and eats when he wants to. I know this is probably not good but it helps to keep everything less stressfull for everyone. He doesn't eat alot and it keeps him satisfied and us too.
Don't give up. Kids go in stages, just give it time and patiences.
I would love to have a playdate but I live yelm which is quite aways from you. Maybe in the future. Good Luck.



answers from Seattle on

I have found that when I let my son help with the grocery shopping and the meal preperation he is more apt to eat. Try mini pizzas made from English Muffins. Try to think of things he can do without hurting himself. You can use ziplock bags to shake things or mix things. Try not to worry about messes. The result is worth the extra time it takes to clean up.

I hope you have some success with mealtime.



answers from Seattle on

Hi K.,

What came to mind for me when I read about your dilemma, was this great place called the Children's Therapy Center in Kent. I know you live in Bellingham, so that wouldn't work for you. First, let me tell you a little bit about the Center, so it doesn't sound so clinical. I began taking my son there through the City of Kent's recreation program. They have a group called playtime pals where children get together with their parents in a class and have music time, structured play, snack time etc. So it is like a great preschool before kids normally go to preschool. The center is open to children through Kent Parks programs, but it's main purpose is to help children with many different issues. Some children have eating issues (many of the kids in my son's class were working through this very successfully), some have sensory issues, some need more socialization, etc. Anyways, these people are great and I was thinking you could call them and look for a referral in Bellingham to help you with your son's eating challenges. I know nothing is "wrong" with your son, but it sounds like his eating habits are creating a lot of tension and frustration in your home and it would be great to make it easier on him and the rest of the family so this doesn't have to continue the way it is going now. The Children's Therapy Center is also called SKIP(South County Early Intervention Program)and this is their website: I would call them and tell them about yourself and where you live and see if they know of any programs that are similar in Bellingham. I think this could be a great source of moving in the right direction for you. I really hope this helps you!
Take care,



answers from Seattle on

Hey there,

I know how it can be tempting to cave in to a toddler/little boy's needs, I just think it's really a bad idea. There are a couple great ideas in this response page. The lady who says "stick to it ness" has got it nailed. Your son needs to know that you will act on it. The lady who wonders why you only eat together once a week...great point about eating at the same time with your son, regardless of whether pops is there to join you.
I think the spitting out of food is just a way to grab some attention. Even negative attention is desirable to kids, sometimes. So, give him some by sending him away from the table, and ENJOY your husband time! I think it's best to avoid correcting your husband when he's disciplining your son, at least in front of the kid. That way, if you have an issue with your husband's methods, the 2 of you can discuss it privately, and your son is kept in his place as your son. He doesn't need an active role in his own discipline! Unless you choose to give him choices, that is. Like, eat the food without spitting it out or go to your room without it.
Sounds like you have your hands full, but you seem smart and capable, too. Just hang in there, he'll think of other ways to challenge you when he's older!



answers from Seattle on

Hi K.-

I have a home daycare and a lot of picky eaters. We are only allowed to follow what is on our menu for the day. So if a child doesn't want to eat it we don't force them but, try to give some incentive to finish the food in front of them. If there still is a problem then they don't have to eat it but if they are hungary later they have to wait till snack and don't get seconds because they are hungary. There is only one serving and that's it. They soon learn to eat when they are here. It sounds harsh with the one serving but that's all I can afford to give them.

But the most important thing is to follow thru with what you say you are going to do. If you don't they will walk all over you and know that they can. You and your husband have to stick to your guns.



answers from Seattle on


I hear you. My son is 6 with some ADHD meal-time issues that creates a very similar meal time experience. My husband often gives empty threats in attempt to get my son to do what my husband wants and it just doesn't work. Then I just get mad and tired of the chaos. I too have left the table and finished in the living room by myself to keep what little sanity I have left.

The only thing that comes to mind that might help is go ahead and give your son his food earlier and then try to have dinner time with your husband be more social. (Eliminate the main troubling factor). Your son could share what he did that day or look at a picture book at the table or show his dad a picture he colored for him earlier..... Then if your son has a case of the wiggles, he could be excused to go play.

I am sure you will get advice for you and your husband to agree on what to do at meal time but I also know, sometimes it is just easier to manage it yourself.

Good luck - K.



answers from Seattle on

My suggestion is that you have a calm discussion with your husband about how the two of you are going to handle dinner time with your son. Point out the objective fact that neither of the techniques the two of you are using is working so you'd like his "help" to come up with a new plan. (If he's like most men (and women, for that matter), he'll really like and appreciate you asking for his advice.)

What we do with my four year old son is to require that he sit at the table during dinner. He doesn't have to eat a single bite if he doesn't want to. We don't cajole, plead, threaten or bribe him. In the beginning, if he threw a fit - we ignored him. Once he figured out that he wasn't going to get any attention for bad behavior, he stopped. I always try to serve at least one thing I know my son will eat, so he can fixate on that if he doesn't like anything else. More often than not, he will try a bite of pretty much everything on his plate. (He gets praised for trying something, but I don't make him swallow something he doesn't like.)

If your hubby is really unreasonable and won't stop HIS portion of the bad dinner time behavior, you might have to have two dinners just so you can have some peace. Perhaps when your son is able to have dinner without the pressure of being shouted at, he'll mellow out around mealtimes and you'll be able to bring your whole family back to the table.

Good luck!



answers from Seattle on

This is what we've been doing with meal time battles here. Kids get to pick what they want for breakfast and sometimes for lunch. They do not get to choose dinner unless we are eating out. They either eat what is served or they do without. Later when they say they're hungry I pull it back out and offer it to them again. They usually eat before they go to bed, and if not then chances are they really aren't that hungry and they'll eat breakfast the next day.

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