How We Handle Meals & Snacks in Our Family

by GfG on November 20, 2013 · 8 comments

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One of the first parenting compromises we had in our marriage dealt with meal times.  One of us was of the, “Eat everything on your plate!” camp and the other was of the, “Some foods are yucky” camp.  Our camp of compromise is  the “Try everything on your plate” camp.

Here are our rules for meals:

(These apply to family members over the age of 18mo-ish)

  • Everyone has take 2-4 bites of every item served them (2 for youngers, 4 for everyone over the age of 5).
  • Eat all you are served if you want dessert.
  • Express only nice attitudes about the meal you are served.

Here are our rules for snacks:

  • Those who ate all they were served at the previous meal get snacks before the next one.
  • Snacks are fruit, veggies, or a protein (yogurt, nuts, cheese sticks, etc).

How do we actually implement these rules?

Well, first of all, we talk about kindness and appreciation.  We explain why expressing unhappiness or unkind words (otherwise known as complaining) about a meal someone has prepared for them is inappropriate.  Paul has made the rule that if he made it, they can complain.  There is a pretty hilarious family story about that.

If a child seems to be wavering in remembering this rule, we smile and remind them.  They know that complaining is never allowed, whether I made the meal or a lady they are meeting for the first time made it.

Reminders are truly important when it comes to eating as a guest somewhere, so we always go over appropriate guest comments about a meal.

Secondly, I am sure to have a dessert on hand for “unusual” food nights or meals that might be less than appealing.  It is amazing how motivating dessert is.  I have heard on more than one (or twenty, since I’ve been doing this for sixteen years now) occasion, “Is there dessert tonight?” or “If there is dessert tonight, what is it?”

I’m perfectly ok with them not clearing their plate if they don’t like the meal.  If dessert isn’t motivating enough, they aren’t that hungry.  I serve the plates and I am sure to place appropriate amounts on each child’s plate.

Thirdly, I do not, I repeat, I do not fix separate meals for the children.  I haven’t done this since Hannah Beth was a toddler. I decided early on that creating the scenario of a short order cook was damaging to a child’s sense of gratitude, humility, and others mindedness.

I am responsible for making the menu.  While I am not a short order cook, I do ask them their favorites and involve them in choosing as well as preparing meals.  I am not crazy.  I don’t try to serve liver and onions every night.

cornbread WEB

Fourthly, if we are at a guests’ and the meal is crazy unusual for my children’s palates, then I will show some mercy.  After we come home, they may have some fruit or cheese sticks.  Let me be clear to say that this is rare.  I actually can’t think of an instance off the top of my head except for church pot lucks early on in our parenting years.

I learned to start bringing bananas and cheese sticks or rolls to pot lucks.  Yup, seriously.        😉

Fifthly, we follow through with the consequences.  We stay at the table with a child if he/she decides to test the four bite rule and we do send him/her to bed if they persevere.  It has only happened once that a child tested whether or not there was also a time limit.

Paul is a quick learner, though, and we have since started giving warnings that meal time is almost over (we will say a specific amount of minutes), so the child knows to bite or get to bed.  Dragging dinner out is silly and just creates a battle.

We have had these rules in place for more than a decade.  Only one time has a child chosen to go to bed.  Paul Louis was the one.  Yup, that means that five kiddos before him never chose bed over taking the obligatory bites.  He is five and a half and still chooses to eat instead of going to bed.

Remembering if a child ate all of their meal isn’t always easy, but I do it (or they do and they think I do, which works just as nicely).  They are reminded before they leave the table for breakfast and lunch that they will not get a snack if they don’t eat everything.  It’s not a huge deal, but it helps them understand that if you turn down food, you must not be that hungry.

Why do we have these rules? 

We want to help our children see that their heart should choose kindness first.  When a child will only eat macaroni and cheese or will only eat peanut butter and jelly, that child is walking in self-centeredness.  Cultivating that is not what we want to do.

We want our children to choose kindness towards the person who fixed their food over choosing their flesh.  (Not eating their flesh, just to clarify.) It takes training to tame the flesh, in any situation.

We want to help them develop palates that aren’t picky.  Presenting opportunities to try new foods and/or to experience food in a different way helps avoid picky eaters.  I’ve read different pieces at different times stating how many times it takes before a “new” taste can be acquired, but it’s more than once.  And more than twice.

Actually, the picky rule is also somewhat attached to the first rule.  Picky eaters are usually so because they haven’t been trained or won’t see outside themselves to be grateful for food or at least try something new.

This is not always true. There are people with sensory issues who truly struggle with new flavors and textures.  I know this.  I also know this issue is not extremely common.

An important side of preventing picky eaters is that they can eat almost anywhere, with almost anyone.  I don’t have to worry about offending a hostess or my kids going hungry, even for extended periods,when we have graciously been invited somewhere.

We strive for lovely meals, but also aim for more.  I do not try to make meals that my children dislike.  I am not a big meanie.

Yet, we strive for much more than making the children happy at mealtime.  We want to make the most of our budget, use the food God has provided, and we want to grow their palates.  All of this comes into play when planning a menu.  For example, beans are incredibly cheap, so we have them often.

beans WEB

The kids were not big bean fans at first.  Overtime, they have learned to love almost all of the recipes I use for preparing beans.  Same goes for other dishes.  If had operated solely out of their happiness, we would have missed an amazing way for us to stretch our budget..

We want peaceful mealtimes.  As funny as it sounds, having rules in place eliminates meal time drama.  Everyone knows the rules and knows Mom and Dad will apply them.  Bargaining is eliminated.  Begging is eliminated.  Bribing (on the part of the parents) is eliminated.

This allows us to focus on fellowship, which is important.

These are our rules for meal times.  They have blessed our family and other families (when we have been the guests).  I’m grateful for Paul and I’s compromise camp.

Turns out it’s been pretty great.

How do you handle meal times with your children?


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Megan November 20, 2013 at 9:03 am

I pretty much could have written this to a T. Except that we do 1 bite for children under 5 and 3 bites for children over 5. We have only ever had to send 1 child to bed also, it was the girl, and it has happened more than once! She has still not gotten over her stubbornness with food. But she is getting better…slowly!


Katie Givens November 20, 2013 at 9:27 am

Thank you for posting this, Mindy! Really insightful and I have had a lot of these same questions before!


GfG November 20, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Glad to help, Katie! Never hesitate to ask any Qs you’d like me to address here on the blog.


Brooke November 20, 2013 at 9:48 am

We have a one bite rule at our house. We also do not allow complaining or making negative comments about what is on the table. “No thank you” is sufficient. After age 5, we let children serve themselves so they can decide how much of a particular item they want (with reason). So if a child doesn’t love chicken but loves cous cous, then she can serve herself 5 bites of chicken and a and a heap of cous cous. We serve lots of raw veggies, fruit and salad and every meal and each child must have a helping. Because there are foods I truly don’t like, if I make something that I know that a child can’t stand, that kiddo can have a peanut butter sandwich and veggies. This only happens a few times a year. Also, I can make some meals with a more adult dish and a more kid oriented dish. For example, when I make lasagna, I make one with Italian sausage for the kids (and me!) and one with mushrooms and eggplant for the daddy. Our goal, too, is a peaceful mealtime. We do not have a clean plate rule, but we talk about our kids serving themselves what they will actually eat. We also do not do desert after every meal, but we do have it 2 or 3 times per week. I try to keep in mind that the one who makes the menu and cooks the meals never makes things she won’t eat– if there is something that half of the kids dislike, I don’t make it or I offer an alternative.


GfG November 20, 2013 at 11:23 pm

I do a bit of rearranging for certain meals too (especially on spice), like your lasagna gig.

My older kids do now serve their plates (forgot about that).

Thanks for chiming in here!


Annette Q. November 20, 2013 at 9:51 am

We have very similar meal time rules. The biggest challenge we face now is limiting portions. I have established a two servings rule for most foods at meal time because otherwise my kiddos would eat us out of house and home. Do you limit servings?


GfG November 20, 2013 at 11:22 pm

We only limit servings on carbs. Veggies are always unlimited for a meal. Meat is limited, but only because we don’t usually have a lot at the meal. We do say, “Are you sure you are still hungry? Maybe wait a few minutes to make sure.”
One issue we have is a large family problem: first to finish is first to seconds. 😉 We have to watch that and make sure everyone who wants more is able to get more.


Brooke November 23, 2013 at 10:57 am

Oh yes, I limit spice too. You can always add more red pepper, but you can’t take it away :)


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