Dear Dr. Day Care,
Our 4-year-old son refuses to sit down and eat a meal with his family each evening. We are visiting family over the holidays, and I am worried that he will not cooperate. What can we do?
Signed, Stressed Dinner Parents
Children need to be taught rules about appropriate dinner behavior beginning at an early age. I recommend starting around 7 months old. If your son has not previously been given limits in this area, he probably has made up his own rules and acts the way he chooses. I suggest taking some time with him to re-teach him new behaviors for dinner time.
A good starting point for a 4-year-old is to read stories about family dinners. Point out similarities and differences to your family dinners. Explain to your son that you will be changing the rules of dinner time.
An example of a dinner time rule is that every family member is expected to come to the table to eat. Every family member is expected to attend and eat at least 4 bites of every item (change the number of bites or items based on the meal and how much your child typically eats). Ensure all family members sit at the table for this time, no one should get up for any reason.
Use verbal praise to reinforce good behaviors.
Do not try to force your son to stay at the table for too long at a time, start with short times and progress to longer times.
During the meal, make sure there is engaging conversation that includes your son. Ask everyone to share something fun or positive that happened during the day. Talk about the food you are eating and where it came from (this is another great teachable moment!) as you are eating together.
When your son has eaten his agreed upon amount, he can complete a quiet activity that he can do while the rest of the family continues the meal. Choose this activity together, before the meal begins.
Follow through on the established rules and this will help to alleviate dinner time discomfort.
Also keep in mind that the holidays are a stressful time for many, and your son will pick up on your family’s vibes. While it is important to follow through on the rules, remember that things will be different in a new atmosphere. Explain the expectations ahead of time and offer praise when you see good behaviors occurring.
Dr. Mary Ann Shallcross Smith
Founder, Dr. Day Care
“Dr. Day Care” is Mary Ann Shallcross Smith, Ed.D., CEO/President of Child Care Consultants & Facilities Management, Dr. Day Care Learning Center, Kids Klub, and Therapeutic Child Care Services. We educate infant, toddler, preschool, kindergarten, and school-age/camp children.
“Dr. Day Care” can be reached anytime by calling 401-723-2277 x 222 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional Parent Resources, such as informational videos, visit our website at: www.drdaycare.com. Mary Ann also recently wrote a children’s book about educational opportunities that you can read to your child: Edgar Graduates: www.drdaycare.com/about/books