Does your mealtime ever include a screen? For some kids an occasional screen becomes a necessary tool to get them to eat.
Toddlers (and all kids, really) are tricky little creatures and parenting them can be an uphill battle some days. You may have one that is picky with foods, or just can’t sit still long enough to eat a substantial meal. Parents, who are often working out of their best intentions, sometimes put on TV, or set up a tablet, phone, etc. to try to distract their child from the act of eating in hopes that they will sit longer, and eat more.
And it usually works. Kids tend to be easily distracted by screens and therefore will often eat more than they would otherwise. But, setting up your little one to need a screen to eat is setting them up for unhealthy habits for the long term. Here’s why:
- Screens turn off the sensation of fullness and hunger. Being mindful while we eat is a practiced discipline. When we can teach our kids to pay attention to what they’re eating and how they feel as they eat, the better they’ll be able to manage food, not overeat, and fully enjoying the food they eat.
- Screens during meals makes your life harder. Initially, if your child eats better with a screen, it seems like a win to use during meals and snack times. But when kids are dependent on these devices to eat, it makes it a challenge when the routine or schedule changes. What happens when the device isn’t available? If you’re traveling? If the battery dies? When you have people over? It can set up additional barriers to eating and create routines that may not always be able to be kept.
- Screens cause children to miss out on great social opportunities. The family meal has been shown to be a protective event for several positive outcomes: an increase in healthy eating, decrease in obesity, decrease in eating disorders, decrease in drug use, and increase in academic scores. If your child never participates in the family meal because his eyes are stuck on a screen, he’s missing out on all the benefits (beyond just immediate nutrition) that the meal offers.
Do you find yourself stuck in this screen mealtime pattern?
First, don’t stress and don’t place any more guilt on yourself than you’re probably already doing. It won’t help you OR your child.
So just stop it. If you’re reading this, you desire a change and that’s a great place to be. You may want to completely stop the screens all at once. This may work for some, but for others it may be too overwhelming. Taking small steps is perfectly fine and can help the change be gradual and not seem so drastic to your life.
Here’s some guidance to help your family move to screen-free meals:
- Choose one meal or snack to take the screen away from. You can start here and slowly move to all meals/snacks within a few weeks/month.
- Be prepared to deal with tantrums and big feelings. You can try to combat this by preparing your little one as much as possible. Let them know the night before that breakfast is going to look different. Tell them that you want to do things differently and eat together withOUT the device. Set the expectation that you can eat this meal together (without a screen) and then play a fun game, read a book, (or whatever else they enjoy) after the meal is over. You are setting the new expectation and giving them a positive reward for going through with the change.
- Eat WITH your child. They will eat more, stay seated longer, and be more focused on the meal if you are sitting with them.
- Use a timer. It’s hard for little ones to sit for extended periods of time. Using a timer (especially if it can be a visual cue) can help them anticipate how long they are expected to sit. Start with one minute per year of the child and then slowly increase until you reach 20-30 minutes for a meal.
- Follow the feeding roles. Parents are in control of what they serve their child, where they eat, and when they eat. Children are in charge of whether they eat what is offered and how much of it they eat. Sticking to these roles will help mealtimes run smoother and create healthy eating patterns.
- Set up a feeding schedule and be consistent. If you have a child that grazes on food most of the day, it is really hard to expect them to sit or eat at a meal time. Develop a feeding schedule that is consistent but not militant, serving 3 meals and 2-3 snacks at least 2-3 hours apart for those under 5 years. For bigger kids, you can space the meals/snacks out to every 3-4 hours.
- Join our Family Feeding Coaching! If you struggle with getting your child to eat, and/or use consistent distractions to get him to eat, having a coach to help you change that habit is very beneficial. We take families through our 6 week course of proven methods with practical application for their everyday life. Get 1:1 support and guidance for your individual family. Learn more here and sign up here.
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