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Breaking Bad Family Mealtime Habits

Breaking Bad Family Mealtime Habits

By Amalah

Hi Amy!! Have been following you forever and love your Smackdown advice. Please be merciful with my situation:

When I was home on maternity leave last winter with a colicky newborn I got into a bad habit with my toddler: *whispers* I started giving her most of her meals in front of the TV *hangs head in shame.*

At the time it didn’t seem like that big of a deal because it was the polar vortex winter of doom and I spent a lot of time pacing with and nursing a screaming infant. But now the screaming infant is a pleasant 10-month-old who eats nicely in a high chair and my toddler (now just turned three) just can NOT sit still and eat at the table.

I work part-time and she attends a home daycare while I am at work and is able to sit and eat properly there, even trying new foods, etc. Daycare lady reports no problems. But at home she will not sit in her seat, runs around the kitchen, and is generally disagreeable. Usually she asks to be excused and bring her plate to the couch to watch something. By that time I’m usually frazzled enough to be all: fine! She kind of zones out in front of the TV and will peacefully eat whatever’s on her plate. For what it’s worth, she’s a picky eater and kind of small/thin for her height but nothing outside the realm of normal.

I knowww what needs to be done, I just need advice and support about the terrible few weeks (months?) it will take to get there. I even bought Ellyn Satter’s book and I totally understand/agree with/want to emulate her advice. I am worried that I will repeat the same mistakes with my younger daughter and we will never have the lovely family dinners of my dreams. Is that unrealistic with two young kids anyways? My husband shares my concerns but works kind of late so it’s usually me and the girls for most meals. He will be totally on board with any plan of action.

So basically this isn’t a question about my toddler, it’s more about me. What are the actual words that need to come out of my mouth? I am prepared to have her skip some meals (dinnertime is the worst and she does much better at breakfast and lunch). Can she never eat in front of the TV again? Should I cut TV out all together? Help! I need some tough love.


PS I am a children’s librarian. Not even kidding. Oh, the irony!!

PPS This might sound defensive, but also wanted to note that we don’t watch crazy amounts of TV at our house — we do a good amount of reading, crafts, playing, running errands, normal stuff. TV is kind of now tied to dinner, which makes it … worse? I don’t know.

So before we get to the Most Righteous and Proper Smackdown-ing, let me be clear that I am only sympathizing with you here, not judging. We’ve ALL done stuff like this. We’ve ALL introduced (and then ignored) a less-than-ideal habit, usually out of exhaustion or desperation. And I’d bet that 99.9999999% of those bad habits we cave to are either food or sleep related.

I’m the biggest Satter Method tub thumper you’ll probably ever meet, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never made mistakes or fallen face-first into the very behaviors she warns about in the very first chapter.

When we first decided to go Full Satter, we were basically in your shoes. I had a picky, stubborn 3 and a half year old and a pleasant, agreeable baby. Our particular bad habit was short-order cooking for the 3 year old and caving to his super-limited list of acceptable food items — night after night of boxed macaroni and cheese or PB&Js, usually. I considered it a dietary success if I was able to hide some of the baby’s pureed vegetables in his pasta sauce or a smoothie.

And like you, I kneeeeeewwwwww. I knew this wasn’t ideal, or even really “okay.” He was living on salty cheesy carbs and little else. And he kept getting pickier and pickier, more likely to freak out at the sight of something unfamiliar on his plate, and I could already see the baby’s good eating habits starting to head down a similar path. Why was his brother getting THAT while he was expected to eat THIS?

I read Ellyn Satter’s book, read a few pertinent sections out loud to my husband, and we agreed to ditch the short order cooking and embrace the “division of responsibility” instead. (It is our job to put food in front of him. It is his job to eat it.) We went pretty much cold turkey. He got the same food we ate, presented in an accessible format and portion size. If my husband worked late and I did make a “kids’ meal” separate from ours, it was still comprised of “off-list” foods. (Challenging things like…chicken nuggets! Meatballs! Frozen peas! I was the MEANEST!)

He refused to eat dinner for a few days, yes. Just straight up would not eat a bite.

“Okay,” we said. “Clear your plate, you may be excused.”

Then we turned our attention back to our meal and his brother.

Note that nine times out of 10, he was already up from his seat and pitching a fit. We did not institute the “fine, don’t eat, but stay here at the table with us” rule until much later. Baby steps! Telling him to clear his own plate and reinforcing the idea that his meal was over once he left the table was a really effective place to start, and helped curb a lot of the control-based battle-of-wills temper tantrums. He felt like he “won,” but he really didn’t, because WAIT NOW I’M JUST HUNGRY. AND EVERYBODY IS IGNORING ME. CRAP. NOW WHAT.

So if your daughter gets up and wants to eat in front of the TV, tell her no, we eat at the table. If she gets up, her dinner is over. She can take her plate into the kitchen and then play quietly, but the TV. Stays. Off. Full stop. Maybe have some music playing quietly instead, and use that as a secondary excuse — we are all enjoying this music and we won’t be able to listen with the TV on. (And yes, I would insist on zero meals in front of the TV, at least for a very long time, or until you’re confident the “expectation” of eating there has been broken. I wouldn’t cut out TV completely, just reframe it as an activity completely separate from food, meals and snacks included.)

If she decides that no, she’s not sitting at the table, not eating, no no NO, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it ISN’T YOUR JOB TO MAKE HER EAT. No more caving, no more frazzled “FINE!” Let her make the choice to not eat. Do your damnedest to not give a crap about that choice. You did your job. She will not starve. There’s nothing to be frazzled over because you a freaking Zen Master of Calling Dinnertime Bluffs. If she continues to throw a tantrum over the TV, respond however you typically respond to tantrums (simply ignore, time out, go to her room, etc.). Consistency is key here, across the board.

My son caved by night four or five. He was really hungry and finally aware that we were not going to back down and give him something else. He ate an entire plate of fish sticks and carrots. Hardly a nutritional masterpiece but at the time it was HUGE.

Fast forward to now. I have three children who all sit (mostly) politely at the table and (mostly) eat the same family meal.  (Our 3 year old recently went through a big “I don’t like this I’m getting up I’m driving you crazy” phase — we got through it basically following the advice I just gave you, paying particularly close attention to the NOT GIVING A CRAP Zen Master mode and ignoring him completely once he bailed on the meal.)

Family meals are absolutely a realistic goal, and one that I really believe is worth fighting for. Dinnertime is pretty much the one time of the day when all five us can really be together, and focus on each other — rather than the TV or our phones or homework or housework or breaking up sibling squabbles. I genuinely look forward to dinnertime now, instead of dreading it because of the merciless whims of a picky or defiant child.

Last night I made salmon with a barley/fennel/brussels sprouts risotto. (Two of them had seconds on the salmon, one had thirds.) The night before was Thai chicken meatballs in a slightly spicy curry sauce and rice noodles. (My formerly most-picky eater asked for more noodles, but was completely fine with me dumping more curry sauce on them first.) This morning I made chicken tikka masala in my slow cooker. Tomorrow night I’ll probably make them a frozen pizza or something so my husband and I can have a later, romantic dinner together. And that’s cool, because they know the next night it’ll be back to dinner as usual.

So chin up! Stay strong! It’s not going to be fun at first, no, but oh my God, IT WORKS. AND IT’S SO WORTH IT.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Caroline

    November 24, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Oh yes. I haven’t read the Satter book, but it sounds like our way of doing things in a general way, and YES the TV at mealtimes thing is a very easy habit to form… no judgement at all from me!

    There will be tears and shrieking and she has obviously become used to getting her way because you have been so tired and worn out and who can blame you, but it will be a harsh shock to her. So let her know BEFORE supper that this is how it’s going to be. You are making xyz, she is going to eat at the table, when she leaves, her supper is over and there’s definitely no TV at supper time ever under any circumstances (for a while). The end. You may have a couple of rough dinners, but then she’ll cotton on that having a tantrum will not get her anywhere and actually, she’s kind of hungry, or not, whatever. But if she is, dinner is this and that’s that. There are no other options of any kind whatsoever. My boys aren’t picky about what they eat and of course I don’t try and force them to eat things I know they hate and despise, but if mash is what we’re having, and the 8 year old isn’t that keen, well, eat a couple of spoons and leave the rest… you know? We all like it, you’ll get over it!

  • Jenelle

    November 24, 2014 at 10:30 am

    I could not agree more!! I have three kids, ages 6, 3, and 14 months, with a range of likes/dislikes/pickiness, but they all follow the same dinnertime rules: 1) This is dinner; you don’t have to eat it, but you don’t get anything else. 2) you have to try a bite of everything on your plate. Yes, even if you have tried it a million times before and hated it. Maybe you will like it the millionth-and-one time. 3) There is no negative commentary on food. If you don’t like it, fine; put it to the side of your plate and don’t eat it. But if someone takes the time to cook for you, whether it is your mother or a chef in a restaurant, you will be respectful and polite.

    This is not to say that we are perfect or have not undergone our share of battles. It still hurts my feelings when my picky eater doesn’t like something I have lovingly prepared for her. My husband still fights the “Clear you plate” tendencies he was raised with. But in general, the kids know what to expect, they know to listen to their bodies about how much to eat, and they know that if we occasionally break a rule for a special treat, we will go right back to normal the next night. 

    This is a battle worth fighting, and you are doing a good job. Just knowing that the habit you’ve gotten into is not a good one, and caring enough about your children to make the effort to change, is awesome. Keep up the great work! 

  • IrishCream

    November 24, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    You have my sympathy! My two kids are about the same age difference as yours, and the first few (colicky) months of my younger daughter’s existence are a blur of extra screen time and doing whatever it took to get through the day.

    I’ve never found anything more effective on bad behavior than ignoring it. Set out your expectations ahead of time, remind your daughter again as the meal starts, and then clear her plate when she gets down and ignore any tantrum she might throw. Easier said than done, I know, but if you can hang tough for a few days your daughter will learn quickly that bad behavior doesn’t get her what she wants.

    Also, we introduced the magic of “asked and answered” at that age, and the kids understood it right away. If she keeps asking to bring her plate to the TV, or to have it back once you’ve cleared it, answer her once with the reminder about the new expectations, and then every repetition or “Whyyyyyyyy?” after that gets the “asked and answered” response. Not quite ignoring, but it keeps you from getting sucked into an endless debate about your rules.

    • IrishCream

      November 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      And I should add that I didn’t mean to make it sound as if your daughter uses bad behavior to get her way all of the time!

  • Stephanie

    November 24, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    I agree that ignoring bad behavior has always worked the best for me (so very hard, I know; I’m a total control-freak, and bossy, to boot).  
    I had a very picky kid who has grown into a much more adventurous eater (he’s 13 now).  I made many mistakes with him (we were short-order cooks for a few years), but one thing that I did right was to not ever force him to eat, anything, ever.  I have very vivid memories of gagging on cold canned green beans as a kid.  I still HATE green beans, even the good, fresh kind.  I would always give him a small portion of the food that we were eating (even when I made something separate for him) and would tell him that I would like for him to try it, but he didn’t have to. Eventually, he started to try things, and then later, he started to like more things.
    This summer, he ordered duck for dinner one night on our fancy vacation.  Another night, he had baked swordfish (HUGE DEAL)!
    Nice family dinners are definitely worth working toward, and not unrealistic, at least until the kids are teenagers and bicker through the whole meal, but that’ a long way into your future.  Good luck and hang in there–there’s a huge learning curve in parenting.  Don’t beat yourself up for taking the easy route (eating on front of the T.V.) sometimes.

  • Maree

    November 26, 2014 at 2:05 am

    I’m a daycare provider and the reason things always work at care is because they are not negotiable in any way, the rules are the rules are the rules, full stop!  In my experience even the most strong willed kids accept the rules that they can’t change and push at the rules you are shaky on. Soooo my advice is to wait until the stars are aligned and you are 100% committed to this change because there can be no backsliding.  If you do that and don’t budge it should take less than a week, if you waver it will take forever.  Best of luck, pick your moment.  

    • Hannah

      November 26, 2014 at 8:44 am

      I’m also a daycare provider and yes, I agree with this 100%. Parents are more frazzled, in a hurry, whatever, and consistency is harder to maintain when you aren’t setting limits for a whole tableful of kids at once. In the daycare environment, if you crack, it’s anarchy! 😀

      OP, I’ll say this – you know what you need to do. It will be TOTALLY worth it. I always tell parents that it’s short term pain, yes, but the payoff means an easier life for you, so why wouldn’t you make the effort now? You deserve a nice meal around the table (I have three boys aged 3, 6, and 9, and we have peaceful meals 99% of the time) and you can get it, I promise.

      Good luck!

  • K

    November 26, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    I’m just writing in because, OP, you need to give yourself a BIG HUG! You are doing a great job, your kids have a caring mother and father and just because your toddler is being a toddler, you should not blame yourself. It’s great that you want to get your family meal on track, but you should do it for your own sanity, not because you feel some sort of mommy guilt!! It’s really hard to have a newborn, and I would say you should give your family a year to really adjust to a new life, and a new routine, with a new baby.

  • M

    November 26, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    K, this is just to say, you are so great. Thanks for reminding me how helpful the comments section of an advice column can be. And good luck, OP. I’ve been there(abouts), and I’m sure I’ll be there again. Another, wiser mother once gave me some gentle advice when I was going through a particularly crappy time with my very young children: she said that I should take heart, that it was just a season of motherhood. I scoffed then, but I’ve taken solace in those words many times since. 

  • Kat

    November 30, 2014 at 12:51 am

    Agree with everyone else – give yourself a break and when you are ready, buckle down and you’ll get through the tantrums 🙂 really just wanted to chime in and say how awesome it is to see so many supportive, helpful and understanding comments – I love this site/blog because of that. Being a mom is tough, being a “perfect” mom is impossible!

  • Mary

    December 22, 2014 at 5:27 am

    My daughter was colicky and good grief…if dinner time is the biggest thing that took a slight wrong turn, then you did an AWESOME job mama!