With my first I allowed grazing, it was very "in". But 4 kids later, no way. I simply do not have the energy to clean up all day from that or the time to waste on whether child 1,2,3, or 4 has eaten.
I think we have to teach our children good eating habits and there are pros and cons to just about everything out there.
But here is how it works in our house -
1) Food is only allowed in the kitchen (food in the vehicle only on vacation or long trips)
2) We eat at the table, sitting down. It creates a good habit for later in life and for those who struggle with weight issues one of the first lessons is to set a nice table and eat there and only there. It cuts down on mindless snacking and added pounds.
3) The children set the table, it's routine, it's a job for the family
As for meals, maybe b/c I've already trained them, I'm not sure -- but they get up and help themselves to cereal in the morning. I'm nursing the 4th right now, so I'm not up as soon as they are hungry. By the time I'm finished, they are finished and I clean up.
Sometimes they need a snack, sometimes I just serve lunch b/c it's close enough to noon time.
Lunch is fixed and served by me usually, when I was on bed rest my oldest fixed lunch for the others.
We have a snack in the afternoon or else I'm fighting off hungry children while I'm cooking dinner, like about now, it's 3:30pm
Dinner is served between 5:30 - 6:30 most evenings. If my dh is not home, we eat without him. If he is going to be in in just a few minutes and the kids are not appearing to be famished, then we wait.
I don't think learning to eat when it's served is a bad thing, depending on the age of the child. A toddler needs to eat when they are hungry, but they can still sit with the family at meal time. I'm not catering to every "I'm hungry", if I did, I'd never leave the kitchen. Of course, there are always options that do not require my doing anything - apples, bananas, grapes, cherries, GF crackers, etc. Water from the door.
I don't ask if they are finished anymore, I did for a while, it's counter productive b/c 1) raw milk left on cereal for long is gross, 2) toast left out is stale and chewy, if it's GF forget it and 3) the answer is yeah, I'll eat it later and later never comes. Bottom line, if they leave the table they are probably done, exceptions do apply... relative to age of child.
Eventually they learned to eat it fresh and ready or not at all. I don't think they are harmed into thinking there isn't any food for them to eat when they are hungry. There is plenty in the house that is for sure.
Children will eat when they are hungry. If a child decides at dinner they are not hungry, they sit with us until the adults are finished. If they come back later, I will heat up left over dinner. I will not fix a 2nd meal. If they eat their dinner and are hungry before bedtime, they can have an appropriate snack. This is for my 5 and under children. My 8 yr old is now learning that he will eat dinner at dinner time or not at all, he's old enough in our opinion to eat with the family when the family eats. If he eats dinner that is served and is still hungry, he can have more dinner or if it's later an appropriate snack.
I generally do not have any problems with breakfast b/c they are hungry. I have a 3 yr old who is not a morning eater, she will drink a yogurt if she is hungry and we need to leave the house. If we have an appt to get to, I make sure I'm up and they are eating. I will even wake my dd up a little earlier to make sure she will eat before we need to leave.
I will leave lunch out on the table during the week, if they don't eat it, depending on what it is. If it isn't eaten by dinner, it's dumped. I will say the 3 yr old is more likely to leave her food than the boys (5 and 8). This is a habit of laziness more than an actual decision I've made. After I get lunch together I'm just not up to putting it all away and usually the baby is screaming for his mimis by that point.