Mealtime Expectations for a 3 1/2 Year Old - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 8 Old 11-09-2011, 07:01 PM - Thread Starter
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Hi - My dh and I are having some disagreement about what expectations we should have for our 3 1/2 year old during mealtime... things like:  are they required to sit at the table every meal, for how long, are they allowed to get up before they're done, do they have to clean their plate to get dessert or should a serving of dessert be offered with the meal, can they negotiate what they get to eat, are utensils required at this age, what happens if they just won't eat at a meal and are then hungry 30min later, etc.  Any thoughts?  Any good books out there that might have some good advice? 


Thanks in advance!  I'm cross-posting in Nutrition...


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#2 of 8 Old 11-09-2011, 07:22 PM
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my son just turned 4... for us, if we (my mom lives with us) are sitting at the table for a meal, he sits too... if its just a snacky night, or we're eating on the couch (bad habit i know, lol) he doesnt have to sit. once he is done eating, he can get up, but im not going to get up to help him with something, barring an emergency of course, until im done eating. he doesnt have to clean his plate, but i like for him to at least try whats on his plate. we dont always have dessert, but when we do, he needs to at least have made a good dent in his food. if he is hungry later, he can eat more dinner, if he didnt finish before, or if he did, i might make him a pb&j or something. he is always welcome to have fruits and veggies to snack on if hes hungry, and might get a yogurt or something too, depending on how hungry he is and how much of his dinner he ate. he is not going to say hes full and not eat dinner, then fill up on graham crackers or something 20 minutes later, lol

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#3 of 8 Old 11-11-2011, 06:32 PM
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DS has always sat at the table for our meals, and stays til everyone is finished eating. He's the slowest, so that's usually not an issue, but now and then DH and I will be talking after we're finished eating and DS can go wash up and play while we talk. Then we have dessert together. DS has to finish his entire dinner before getting dessert -- if there's room in there for a cookie or fruit, there's room to finish his main meal first. IDK if this is really the way to go, however, since he never asks for seconds since he wants to have room for dessert!


If he doesn't eat at a meal and then complains he's hungry, too bad. We usually have snack mid-morning, so if he's hungry at 10-1030 snack is fine. Earlier than that, I remind him that he should have eaten his breakfast. Same thing after lunch, although that's not usually a problem time for us. Dinner is close enough to bedtime that if he complains he's hungry afterwards, he can have a glass of milk or yogurt during story time and that's it (along with a reminder that he should have eaten his meal when it was there).


I think it's helping him to get on a schedule, but at the same time I don't really like it. I mean, I often wake up unable to eat breakfast right away. And sometimes I'm starving when I wake up and want to eat right away. Why should I have to eat just b/c it's 700? But reality is, that's the time we have to eat. Later than that, we're out the door to school, work, or whatever activity we're doing and there's no time to eat then. So while I'd love for us to live solely on our natural rhythms, it's just not realistic sometimes, and he's going to have to be prepared for these restrictions when he starts school full-time since he'll be in public school where he can't just eat in the classroom whenever he feels like it.

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#4 of 8 Old 11-11-2011, 07:11 PM
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Originally Posted by treehugz View Post

 do they have to clean their plate to get dessert or should a serving of dessert be offered with the meal, 


My favourite kids/food blog is this one - It's Not About Nutrition  In it she recommends deciding how many times a week you're going to have dessert and then doing it. Don't make it dependent on what else they eat. Her argument is that if you make them clear their plate before getting dessert then you are rewarding them for eating food they didn't want with more food. And if you link it to behaviour then you're rewarding behaviour with food which isn't a healthy habit to get into either.


She suggests making most desserts reasonably nutritious so you don't mind so much if they didn't eat a main course. You could also make the main course a bit smaller on dessert nights so that the total volume of food is similar.


It may not work for everyone but it made a lot of sense to me.

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#5 of 8 Old 11-12-2011, 09:17 AM
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 Don't make it dependent on what else they eat. Her argument is that if you make them clear their plate before getting dessert then you are rewarding them for eating food they didn't want with more food. 



I know someone who did this and had disastrous results- the child would not eat anything on days they had desert and they did away all together with having desserts now. He also has an eating disorder and is 7- his major diet is non-nutritional food (not all junk!- lots of empty filler foods) he only wants what he wants and will not eat as to get what he wants- he has had sever health issues as a result of this. Great if it works but it can go the other way very easy and this family has tried all types of "things" and it comes down to him simply not eating most meals and living on very little. Sever anemia, digestive issues and now emotional food issues and he is only 7, he was been off the chart for over 5+ years-he looks awful, skin and hair issues. The parents just think he will out grow it and offer what ever to him- he's be recommend to a specialist and they parents don't feel that is needed.


Eating a reasonable amount prior to being offered a treat (desert) - IMO is far more beneficial and healthy-you are rewarding if you follow this--it simply means "whatever" you want to do and still get desert no matter what.


Most people offer a "sweet" as a desert and there are clear ways around that- making desert not the very sweet most Americans are use to - cheese makes a great end of meal.

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#6 of 8 Old 11-12-2011, 10:34 AM
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With both of our kids, we've expected them to stay at the table for meals, eat until they are full, and visit with us if they don't want to eat.  If they eat nothing, they can have more of the regular supper later when they are hungry (within reason - we don't set out a full supper at bedtime.  A glass of milk is what they get then). 


Admittedly, my kids have figured out that if they don't like supper, they will make it to their oatmeal in the morning if they drink a few glasses of milk.  I don't stop them from doing it that way.  Once they were being absolutely awful about fruits and veggies, and we were having digestive issues with one because of it, and I cut up a bunch of yummy fruits and veggies and had dips and told them that is what we would eat for every meal until they ate it. Meal #2 they realized I meant it, and they did eat some fruits and veggies again and it broke the cycle. :) 


We often end up with desserts at others' homes (or when we have company or I feel like dessert ;)).  We then expect the kids to eat some "real food" before they eat the "sugar food". 


As far as expecting a "clean plate" or not, we don't really.  We expect them to eat until they are full, and if they don't want much that's fine.  However, we do generally put VERY SMALL portions on their plates.  And with my now 5yo we do expect her to TRY things (one bite) many times. 


Sometimes our kids are awesome about eating.  Sometimes they're really not.  There are ebbs and flows to life.  They somehow keep living and being mostly quite healthy, so we keep along.






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#7 of 8 Old 11-12-2011, 02:49 PM
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Our answers: are they required to sit at the table every meal? Yes. There is no eating anywhere else except for sports bottles of water near the bed at night, or popcorn on the couch for a movie or something.

 for how long? Well, as long as it takes to eat! If we want to sit and have a drink or something they don't have to sit through that, but there is no sitting down for 5 minutes and then jumping up, leaving a full plate.

 are they allowed to get up before they're done? Whenever they get up, they're done. Not counting getting more to drink or going to the bathroom or something. If there's a lot of food left, then I put foil over it and stick it in the fridge to be offered later in leiu of a bedtime snack.

 do they have to clean their plate to get dessert or should a serving of dessert be offered with the meal? Dessert comes if they eat a decent amount of food. Also, if you request seconds, then you're expected to clean your plate because you asked for it. I'm not a stickler about it and sometimes I will say you need to eat 5 bites of xyz to be done.

 can they negotiate what they get to eat? If you mean do they have input into what I cook, absolutely. They are part of the family and I cook for the whole family. SO doesn't like greens so Irarely make them, for example. I extend the same courtesy tp my kids.

 are utensils required at this age? Uh......YES! at three? Utensils are required somewhere around a year and change; I'd be horrified if my 3 year old was eting with his hands.

 what happens if they just won't eat at a meal and are then hungry 30min later? See above. Reheat and reserve, ad nauseum. When they go to bed I dump the plates and we can start fresh in the morning. If I had burned something or messed up something or served something they hate sometimes I'll offer peanut butter and bread even if they didn't finish their food.


We are just now "cracking down" on dd because she is just 18 months. She learned quickly that once she got down from the table, the meal was over. She loves to eat so now she stays at the table and eats her food.


This is not to say we're drill sergeants or that the kids have perfect manners. dd is insanely messy and ds isn't too neat himself. But we definitely have expectations and it's not a free for all.

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#8 of 8 Old 11-12-2011, 07:29 PM
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I will admit up front that we eat more meals sitting in the livingroom then we "should" but oddly it's not even in front of the tv - just at the coffee table instead of the diningroom table. We do expect ds sit for meals & always have. We have dogs so it's a little easier to enforce 'cause if you walk around with food the dogs end up getting your food.


We make whatever we are having for a meal, serve it up & then clear the table after. I pay zero attention to how much ds actually eats. Some meals he clears his plate & wants more while other times he barely touches it.


We've had several conversations about portion sizes & desserts recently. I found dh was serving ds too much & was worried we were getting into pushing him to eat more than he wanted by doing so. We are now trying to make sure to use the smaller plates & not overfill - if he is still hungry there is always more. As for dessert - we rarely have it in our house but it's not uncommon when we are elsewhere. As long as ds has eaten some of his supper he can have dessert but we've never had to actually spell this out for him. We most definitely do not require him to finish his plate for a couple reasons: 1. we don't normally require him to finish his plate 2. it seems unfair to fill his plate for him & therefore decide how much we think he should be hungry for instead of letting him follow his own body cues 3. we think it is an important skill to learn - how to know you want to have some dessert but not overeat in order to have supper & dessert.


We generally do not do extra food outside of meals unless something unusual has happened. I don't want ds to get into the habit of not eating supper 'cause it's not a favourite 'cause he knows he can have something else in a little bit.

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