Learn why a predictable meal schedule encourages calm and regulated eating in children. You’ll understand how to create one using my four steps, while circumventing the trap of being too rigid or controlling with your new schedule.
I’m a big fan of setting up a structure within the home around meal and snack times. It helps children count on food being available, which builds predictability. Meals and snacks at predictable times can build a sense of security and calmness.
The opposite? Unpredictable meals which lead kids to pester their parents about when it’s time to eat and what’s for dinner. In other words, kids who demonstrate insecurity and overly focus on food.
The antidote to this, as you can imagine, is having an eating routine your kids can count on. As I’ve written before, regular routines with meals and snacks also promote appetite regulation, healthier eating, and steady growth.
Being Too Controlling with Feeding is Counterproductive
Some parents will think that “a regular food schedule” will mean rigidity: exact times for meals and snacks and enforcing their child to eat at those times.
Rigidity with feeding, making your child eat, or using threats or punishment to motivate eating is being too controlling in your feeding style and can work in opposite ways.
At a minimum, it can create a negative vibe at the table. In full force, being too controlling may turn your child off from eating, trying new things, or instill bad feelings about shared meals.
How to Create Regular Food Routines and Be Flexible at the Same Time
Ideally, when it comes to serving food, you want a regular routine your child can live by. But, you also want to be flexible and realistic with the ebb and flow of life.
Eating routines should become the norm, but they should also be adaptable to the changes that inevitably crop up.
1. Establish a Regular Location for your Meal Schedule
Whether it be at the kitchen table, a countertop, or on a blanket in the living room, establishing a regular place where your family gathers for meals and eats snacks is the first step.
Kids will understand exactly where they need to show up for eating.
Occasionally, a snack may be eaten in the car on the way to a game or school event. That’s ok!
There will always be circumstances that require you to modify the usual routine, however, it’s important to note (and let your child know) these are exceptions to the rule, not the norm.
2. Set Times for Meals and Snacks with Some Wiggle Room
Generally, it’s a good idea to set time frames for eating. For example, I like to see kids eating every 3 to 4 hours. So breakfast could be at 7 am before school, a morning snack at 10 am, lunch at 1 pm, and so on.
Of course, school schedules may not match up exactly to that 3 to 4 hour framework. This is not a problem because your child should eat enough to satisfy his appetite — no more, no less.
It’s also okay to have a little bit of wiggle room around your set meal and snack times. Say, if dinner is usually at 6:30 pm, it’s fine to serve it at 6 pm or 7 pm if the activities of the day require an adjustment.
I generally advise you keep any adjustments within 30 minutes on either side of your usual meal or snack time.
If you’d like to see what the eating schedules for toddlers and teens look like, read Healthy Meal Plans for Kids.
3. Have a Food Plan and a Rotation (aka Plan A and Plan B)
A rotation is simply a set of weekly meal plans (or snacks) that you re-use over time. Using a weekly meal plan can lighten the load of feeding a family quite a bit.
Sure, there’s some effort up front to planning what you will serve for meals and what you’ll have on hand for snacks. But, this effort pays off when you have the after-school carpool or need to attend an event in the evening… and your mind is blank about what to make for dinner.
No need to be at a loss for what to make for dinner! Read: 50 Easy Weeknight Dinners for Your Family
A meal plan rotation is a suggestion for you, as it makes carrying out a regular routine easier.
Your child may or may not know you have a method for planning meals and snacks, but for you, it will make the regular routine, well, more regular and more routine.
The nice thing about having a meal plan, and better yet, a meal rotation, is that you have your game plan and a back-up plan should things get off schedule.
There have been many times where I’ve planned to make one thing for dinner, only to have my schedule change and time run out. A meal rotation will allow you to shift meals, like pulling Friday’s fast sheet pan dinner up to Tuesday night if you need to.
4. Mindset: Opportunities to Eat vs. Must Eat the Food You Make
Once you have your location set, your timing arranged, and your meal plan at the ready, you need to understand that the meal schedule and routine is set up to provide opportunities for your child to eat.
These aren’t required eating sessions.
If your mindset is, ‘I’ve made this meal, so my child has to eat it’ you may be inclined to follow a controlling path with feeding, including making your child finish the food, take another bite, or forego a dessert if he doesn’t eat enough.
Let me remind you, you can’t make your child eat.
And, using controlling feeding practices is hazardous to your child.
Rather, your mindset should be ‘I’ve made this meal and it’s an opportunity for my child to satisfy his appetite/hunger.’
Our job as a parent is to create the food and eating opportunities our kids need to satisfy their appetite and meet their nutritional needs.
Most kids are very good at doing this provided they get these opportunities without a side dish of controlling feeding tendencies.
Are you ready to get started with your predictable meal schedule?
Need More Help with Meal Schedules and Eating Routines?
I’ve got a few more resources I think you’ll find useful: