Mum of a four-year-old Myanna called in to mothercraft nurse and Kinderling Helpline expert Chris Minogue, looking for advice on her little boy’s very slow approach to mealtimes.
Snack and chat
“He is just the slowest eater ever,” Myanna told Chris. “The meals will go for hours.” That said, she stresses her son “is a good eater” and “will try everything”. It’s just that he “gets distracted and wants to talk or play at the dinner table.”
Myanna says they’ve tried to establish some boundaries at mealtimes, to no avail.
“We don’t have any toys at a table and we only get up from the table once we’ve finished our meal,” Myanna explained. “We’ll leave it up to him whether he’s had enough food. So usually he is hungry. He is keen to eat but in between each mouthful he needs to tell a 30-minute story or play with his little brother.”
Chris empathised with this common problem, and suggested the best way to begin tackling this issue is with what she calls “gentle reminders”.
“When he’s about to launch in today’s story I just say ‘Look, Mummy would really like to hear that story but I need to eat now’. So sometimes just bring him back to the task that you’re asking him to do.”
Chris explained that generally dinner should be done in around 20 minutes – give or take ten mins – and continually bringing your child back to the task at hand is key.
“He’s just having a great time and I think if we just do gentle reminders through the meal and use that 20 minute/half-hour window, then he might just pick it up and understand that he needs to eat just a little bit faster,” Chris said.
“Most children will sit for about 20 minutes to half an hour, but I think if you looked at a whole lot of four-year-olds eating, there’d be a whole lot of parents behind them saying ‘oh look there is more sausage here!'”
“Sometimes they need to be realigned into the activity. If you actually watch him at daycare that’s what the teachers are doing. ‘No, no we’re standing over here.’ ‘No, no we’re sitting down here.’ So kids need those constant reminders.”
“Give yourself a reasonable time to let him eat – and keep him centred on the activity that we’re trying to get him to do. And I’m sure he will get there in the end.”
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It’s all in the timing
Chris also notes that her four-year-old’s daily routine might also be sabotaging successful mealtimes.
“Sometimes children will [behave like] this if the timing of the meal is out, so they’re not actually hungry when we sit them down,” Chris explained.
“That’s a common one on daycare days because they get fed fairly frequently at daycare. When the parent goes to give them a meal, they’re not really that hungry so they get distracted.”
Another possible cause of this kind of procrastinEating is serving up too much food.
“Sometimes they’re overwhelmed with the amount we give them,” Chris said. “So you know if it looks like a lot, he might be getting distracted because he’s trying to work out how much is on the plate and how much he has to eat. Giving him smaller meals, where he thinks he’s achieving a lot, is a really good idea. And then you can always put more down.”
Listen to mothercraft expert Chris Minogue on the Kinderling Helpline:
“He thinks he’s Italian”
Chris stresses putting time limits on mealtimes may help, and that her little guy might not even realise that dinner can be eaten in a speedier fashion.
“Restrict the time,” Chris suggested. “You might have inadvertently taught him that eating is a leisurely activity. He thinks he’s Italian basically in his brain and he’s just sitting there having a long lunch.”
Chris says diverting any chatterbox behaviour to after dinner is a great way to show kids their stories matter, but there’s a time and a place for them.
So just tell him a little bit of the story and say ‘Look, Mummy wants to hear about that after we do dinner. While we are in the bath you can tell me about, you know, the painting you did’ or whatever just to help him along a little bit and get a little bit faster. Not that we don’t want to hear him – we just don’t need the whole half hour conversation at dinner.