Most parents ask me for help with getting their kids to actually stay sitting at the table (if that’s you, check out this blog post). But every once and a while parents ask me for help with the opposite problem. Their child takes forever to eat. Every meal is a long, drawn out affair with long minutes going by between each bite. Every time you go to take their plate away they take another bite or two. You feel torn amongst letting them get enough to eat and actually moving along with the day. If this sounds like you, here’s a strategy to help your child eat enough during a reasonable mealtime.
Step #1: Check Your Expectations. For us adults, the mechanisms of eating are easy. We move the muscles in our mouths and throats to eat without even thinking of it. And, we have the dexterity to use utensils with ease.
Toddlers still are learning the mouth control for eating. So it can take longer to chew and swallow safely. That’s exactly why we have the recommendations of not giving choking hazards to kids under 3 years old.
Preschoolers and school-age kids have mastered chewing and swallowing. But they are still mastering utensils. Expect them to take longer to eat when a meal involves utensils.
Step #2: Use a Visual Clock. Have you taken into account the extra time for mouth coordination and utensil use and determined that you have an honest to goodness dawdler? Here’s a technique that I’ve used with lots of kids to help them learn to manage their mealtime. It’s quite simple really. Kids this age do well with visual cues. This technique stops you from nagging that it’s time to finish up (and prevents kids from learning to tune you out). You simply set a timer, let kids see it counting down, and kids learn to manage completing their task (in this case, eating) within the allotted time. Older kids can follow a simple timer countdown on a cell phone or tablet set up on the table. Younger kids need a visual that doesn’t involve numbers. There are a number of apps and devices available to create a visual representation of a clock. An example of a product is: http://www.timetimer.com/store
To look for apps simply search for “visual timer” in your device’s app store (iTunes, Google Play).
To use the visual clock, introduce the new rule to your child then follow-through. Expect them to get it wrong a few times as they experience the learning curve. During this transition, don’t let them continue eating after the timer is done. Because they will likely be a bit hungry, do plan an extra big snack and, if you can, move snack time up a bit.
Kids are smart. They learn how to regulate their meal time within a few days.