How to make mealtimes with young children less stressful
girl sitting in high chair eating lunch

How to make mealtimes with young children less stressful

How to make mealtimes with young children less stressful

Mealtimes with young children can often be a stressful experience for both parents and kids. Trying to get your child to eat a healthy meal can be a challenge, and sometimes it seems like they may never want to eat what you've made or grow into adventurous eaters. But don't worry. There are some easy things you can do to make mealtimes with children less stressful (for everyone involved).

Below are 15 things you can do to help make mealtime with young (and old!) children less stressful, a little happier, and a little healthier!

1. Establish a Mealtime Routine

Establishing a mealtime routine is an effective way to reduce the stress of mealtimes for both parents and kids. Mealtime routines provide structure and consistency that allow kids to understand when meals are going to happen, what types of food will be served, and how long they need to stay at the table with you. For example, setting a consistent time each day for meals can help children know what to expect and this gives them a sense of control.

This routine also helps with meal planning, because parents can plan ahead and are less likely to be caught in the "oh no! It's lunchtime and I don't know what to make" hole. Additionally, having a routine in place can also make it easier for parents to create healthy meal habits. When you have a consistent routine and plan, it actually makes it easier to do things like regularly (routinely!) introduce little bits of new foods. And when you do this at an early age, you can set kids up for success later in life!

Finally, having a consistent routine helps avoid power struggles between parent and child over food by taking the guesswork out of the equation. When everyone knows what to expect at mealtimes, it reduces the potential for conflict around food choices or amount eaten. With this in mind, establishing a mealtime routine is an important step towards reducing stress in family mealtimes.

 2. Create a Pleasant Environment

Creating a pleasant environment during mealtimes with young children can go a long way towards making the experience less stressful. To create a more positive atmosphere, make sure to keep mealtimes relaxed and free from distractions. Set the table in an inviting way, play soft music or use calming scents like lavender in the background, and remove toys and electronics.

Encourage conversation - yes, even with your toddler! - by asking open-ended questions or making shared observations about the day's activities or the food you're eating. Given your children appropriately sized utensils that support their developmental stage and proper seating to encourage their best posture.  Finally, try to be consistent with your mealtime structure, as this will help your child learn good eating habits and give them a sense of security that comes with routine and expectations.

3. Offer Balanced but Varied Meals 

Sticking to nutritious and balanced meals means regularly offering a variety of healthy food choices that include all the essential nutrients needed for child growth and development. Focusing on providing balanced meals allows kids to get adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in their diet, critical for healthy growth and development. 

Additionally, it is important to introduce a variety of tastes and textures over time in order to help kids become comfortable with different types of foods. Parents should also be mindful of portion sizes when serving meals as this can help children learn how much they need to eat without overeating or becoming overly full. Making sure that kids are eating enough but not too much is an important part of maintaining a healthy weight balance. One simple strategy that you can practice with your kids is serving food family style (rather than pre-plating) and giving them experience serving themselves. Demonstrate how to take small portions to start and allow them to serve seconds if they are still hungry. This will give your kids that desired sense of control (they are choosing what they put on their plate and how much), and give them practice taking smaller portions as they are still hungry. 

Finally, snacks should also be kept nutritious by offering fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy options throughout the day instead of processed junk food or sugary treats. Implementing these tips into mealtimes can help ensure that kids are getting all the nutrition they need for optimal growth and development! 

bowl of yogurt and fruit sitting on a table

4. Serve Smaller Portions

When parents are not forced to worry about whether their child will clean their plate or not, it can take some a lot of stress out of mealtime. Sticking to smaller portions also allows kids to try a variety of different foods without feeling overwhelmed or getting sick of a certain dish. 

This also helps promote healthy eating habits as kids are less likely to overeat if they are only served a small portion size (and it gives you an opportunity to practice the skill of listening for hunger cues and going back for seconds).

Finally, by serving smaller portions, parents can save money on groceries and avoid wastefulness. All in all, there are many benefits to be had by serving smaller portions during mealtimes and starting small can really help your kids in a big way

two pink plates with different portion sizes

5. Offer a Variety of Foods

Offering a variety of foods during mealtimes is a great way to make young children's meals less stressful. By providing a range of food options, it allows kids to be exposed to different textures and tastes, which can help them become more comfortable with different foods over time.

Additionally, offering a variety of foods provides essential nutrients that are needed for optimal growth and development. For example, having fresh fruits and vegetables as part of each meal helps ensure that kids get essential vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, providing lean proteins such as fish or chicken can provide children with important amino acids that their body needs. Finally, whole grains like quinoa or oats can offer healthy carbohydrates to give kids sustained energy throughout the day. By incorporating all of these components into each mealtime, parents can ensure that their child is getting the nutrition they need while also helping to reduce stress in the family dynamic around mealtimes.

Even if you know how valuable it is to serve a variety of foods, it can seem daunting (and expensive). This is where serving small portions, creative meal planning, and using flexible meals can all work in your favor - because you won't actually be wasting food a lot of food and you will have have a plan for what to do with your leftovers.

6. Avoid Mealtime Negotiations

When it comes to mealtimes with young children, one of the best ways to reduce stress is to avoid mealtime negotiations. This means setting clear expectations for mealtime behavior and sticking to them, as this will help create an environment where kids can feel safe and secure. For example, letting kids know ahead of time what will be served for dinner and what behavior is expected at the table can help take away some of the guesswork surrounding mealtimes.

Additionally, allowing kids to have some control over their mealtimes by giving them a choice between two healthy options (instead of trying to convince them to eat something they don’t like) can also help avoid any potential conflict around food choices.

Finally, parents should try to stay calm and consistent with both discipline and rewards when it comes to meals. When kids understand that there are consequences for not following rules around mealtime (e.g. throwing food is a sign that you are finished and I will remove your plate from the table), they are more likely to follow through with expectations without having to negotiate or cause disruption during mealtimes. Ultimately, avoiding mealtime negotiations altogether can go a long way towards helping create a positive atmosphere in family meals!

7. Be Patient and Encouraging

Being patient and encouraging during mealtimes can help make them less stressful for young children. It's important to remember that kids learn through experience, so having patience while they figure out how to navigate mealtime expectations is key. It may take a few attempts before kids understand the expectations around eating and behavior, so it's important to remain consistent and supportive throughout the process.

Positive reinforcement can go a long way in helping young children develop healthy eating habits. This can be accomplished by praising their efforts for trying new foods as well as avoiding punishment when they refuse to eat certain dishes. You can also set a good example for your kids by demonstrating the behaviors you want to see in them.

Finally, parents should also try to focus on creating an overall pleasant atmosphere during meals, such as setting the table together and playing music to keep things lighthearted. By being patient and encouraging with young children during mealtimes, parents will help create an environment of learning and exploration that sets the stage for lifelong healthy eating habits!

8. Use Positive Reinforcement, but Sparingly

When it comes to mealtimes with young children, using positive reinforcement can help reduce stress and create a pleasant environment. However, any positive comments you make need to be used sparingly, because too much focus on what or how your kids are eating can backfire. In general, overreacting or trying to apply strict dietary regimes to discourage picky eating tends to be counterproductive. 

Instead of drawing attention to what or how much your kids are eating, focus your positive praise on things like having good table manners, having helped with setting the table or making the meal, or (very occasionally) their willingness to try something new.  

mom encouraging her son to use a spoon

9. Set a Good Example with Your Own Eating Habits

Setting a good example with your own eating habits is a critical component of making mealtimes less stressful for young children. It's important to demonstrate healthy eating habits and to avoid emotional eating or overeating, as this can lead to bad dietary habits that may be difficult to break in the future. Additionally, it's helpful to show children how to eat with manners by using utensils instead of their hands and speaking kindly at the table.

Parents can also model healthy eating and set an example by trying new foods and being open-minded when it comes to different flavors and textures—this will help normalize unfamiliar ingredients for children who may be more hesitant about trying them. Moreover, parents should avoid discussing weight at the dinner table, as this can create an unhealthy relationship between kids and food.

Finally, practice mindful eating around kids; by staying present and savoring each bite, parents can show their kids how enjoyable meals can be without overeating or feeling guilty about food choices afterwards. By following these guidelines and setting a good example with their own eating habits, parents can provide a positive model for their kids that will help reduce stress around mealtimes in the long-term!

10. Give Kids Time to Eat

Giving kids plenty of time to eat is essential for reducing stress around mealtime. By providing adequate time for them to eat until they are full, parents can help ensure that kids don't feel rushed. Rushed eating can lead to overeating and poor digestion. Additionally, allowing young children to take their time during meals gives them an opportunity to practice self-regulation skills—skills that are important for long-term health. The most important of which is continuing to listen to their internal cues of hunger and fullness.

Furthermore, research has found that taking the time to chew food slowly can reduce the risk of developing digestive issues later in life. It's also important for parents to be aware of how quickly their child eats; if they're finished with their meal too quickly, then it could be a sign of malnutrition or an inability to recognize proper portion sizes.

Finally, taking the extra time to sit down together as a family and enjoy a leisurely dinner has been shown to improve communication and foster strong relationships between parents and children. By giving kids enough time to eat during mealtimes, families will benefit from both short-term stress reduction and long-term healthy eating habits! 

mother and two kids sitting at table for lunch

11. Let Children Participate in Food Prep and Serving

Allowing children to participate in food preparation and service can help make mealtimes less stressful for both parents and kids. Not only is it an opportunity for the whole family to bond, but it also helps young children develop important life skills such as patience and organization.

Additionally, allowing kids to be part of the cooking process allows them to explore different flavors and textures, which can help introduce new foods into their diets. For example, letting kids pick out vegetables at the grocery store or helping them measure ingredients during meal prep can make them more willing to try new dishes.

Finally, engaging with food in this way also allows children to understand where their food comes from and how it is prepared—a valuable lesson that will encourage healthier eating habits in the long run. By involving kids in the food preparation process, parents can create an enjoyable atmosphere around mealtimes while also teaching their kids valuable lessons about nutrition!  

kids helping with meal prep

12. Find Ways to Make Mealtimes Fun for Kids

One of the best ways to make mealtimes enjoyable and less stressful for young children is to find creative ways to make meals fun. For example, parents may consider creating a special “theme night” every week where they decorate the table with a certain color or theme. This can help add an element of fun that will make dinners more inviting for kids (and can help create a sense of stability because kids know they can count on this theme each week). 

Families can try using fun plates, cups, napkins, and utensils to help liven up mealtimes. Parents might also consider setting up exciting conversation activities —such as guessing games —to keep kids engaged during mealtime. Other ideas include telling stories or playing soft music can help enhance the dining experience.

Finally, parents may opt for bento-style meals (like Japanese bento boxes) in order to make food more visually appealing; this can also be a great way to encourage picky eaters who may otherwise be reluctant to try new foods. By implementing these methods, families can turn mealtimes into a fun and relaxed atmosphere that kids will look forward to!

13. Have Realistic Expectations about Mealtime Behaviors 

Parents should have realistic expectations about their children’s mealtimes behaviors. It’s important to remember that eating is a complex process that can be affected by many factors, including culture, taste buds, and the environment.

Parents should try to be understanding of the fact that it may take young children some time to adjust to new food textures and flavors. They should also give their kids enough time during meals to explore their food and enjoy the experience of eating without feeling rushed or pressured. Additionally, it's important for parents to set boundaries with mealtime behavior; while they should allow their kids some freedom when it comes to exploring different foods, they should also remind them of appropriate table manners such as using utensils correctly and not playing with food.

Lastly, parents should establish consistent rules around mealtimes and provide positive feedback when their child displays desirable behavior. By having realistic expectations about children's mealtime behaviors, families can create an atmosphere that encourages healthy eating habits in both the short-term and long-term! 

girl touching hard boiled egg on a plate

14. Involve Kids in Shopping for Groceries and Making Meal Choices

Involving children in shopping for groceries and making meal choices can help make mealtimes less stressful in multiple ways.

First, it can help kids become more familiar and comfortable with different ingredients and flavors ahead of time, reducing the chances that they may be hesitant or resistant to trying them during meals.

Secondly, it allows parents to communicate with children about healthy eating habits, teaching them how to make nutritious choices when selecting food items.

Finally, it’s a great way for families to bond as kids can provide their input on meal planning decisions. Parents may consider taking their children to the grocery store and allowing them to pick out their favorite fresh fruits and vegetables. Not only will this give them an opportunity to learn about nutrition labeling and portion sizes, but it will also show them how fun and exciting grocery shopping can be!

Additionally, parents might create weekly dinner menus with their children so they have some say in what’s served at each meal. This gives kids an extra incentive to try different foods since they’re participating in the decision-making process. Overall, involving children in grocery shopping and meal planning is a great way to reduce stress around mealtimes while teaching kids important lessons about nutrition along the way!

15. Consult With Your Child’s Doctor or Nutritionist if Necessary 

In some cases, families may need additional help when it comes to making mealtimes less stressful. In this situation, seeking the advice of a doctor or nutritionist can be beneficial. Consulting with a professional ensures that parents are making informed decisions based on their child’s individual needs and preferences.

Doctors and nutritionists can provide tailored nutritional advice and tips for meal planning and preparation that take into consideration a child’s medical history, dietary restrictions, food sensitivities, and any allergies. They can also recommend supplements or vitamins if necessary. Nutritionists may suggest specific meal plans that include recipes featuring easy-to-digest ingredients or introduce strategies such as “food chaining” to gradually expand children’s palate.

Furthermore, having an expert to turn to for support can be incredibly helpful for parents who may be feeling overwhelmed or anxious about mealtimes. Ultimately, consulting with a child’s doctor or nutritionist is an excellent way for families to ensure they have the right resources and information they need to make mealtimes less stressful!


Mealtimes with young children can be a challenge for parents due to the various behavioral issues that may arise. However, by following some simple tips such as involving kids in grocery shopping and meal planning, establishing consistent rules, and consulting with professionals if necessary, families can create an enjoyable atmosphere around the dinner table where everyone can feel comfortable eating healthy foods. What are your favorite tips for making mealtimes less stressful? Let us know in the comments below!