By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

(This article is adapted from “Touchpoints: Three to Six,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

For parents and their young children, family mealtimes can be valued as opportunities for sharing each other’s ideas and company. Meals are times for children to experience their own autonomy while being together as a family. Meals need to be fun, not a struggle. Too many choices lead to conflict. A child can eat what the family eats, or not eat at all. Food can all too easily become a destructive struggle that becomes rewarding in itself; food then comes second.

Food can be used as barter for affection: “Eat that just for me”; as coercion: “If you don’t eat that, you won’t get any dessert”; as a reward: “If you clean your plate for Mommy, you can have an M&M.” Bartering clouds the point of meals.

Food and the atmosphere around it are intimately tied together. Parents can provide the food, but they can’t force a child to eat it. If a child is to value food and to look forward to it, it must be associated with her own motivation, appetite and pleasure. Valuing her ability to make her own decisions about what she will eat or not is the surest way out of the struggle. All too often, parents struggle over refusals over which they have no control. Yet parents don’t need to jump to make substitutions. Sticking to a few limited choices, combined with the choice not to eat what is offered, say to the child that “eating is important, but we aren’t going to struggle over it.”

Starting with less than what she may want reduces pressure. Feeding is one of the first activities to express both a parent’s caring and a child’s need for autonomy; feelings, then, are likely to be intense, and struggles difficult to avoid. Both parent and child are too invested.

A caring parent must feel a responsibility to keep the child well-fed and to provide a “balanced diet.” The child struggles between dependence (being fed) and independence (feeding oneself). The tension between dependence and independence will be a recurring theme during a child’s development.

To structure mealtimes so they aren’t too full of conflict for parents and child, here are a few suggestions:

  • No feeding between meals and regular times for snacks.
  • No eating in front of the television or computers.
  • Limit eating to the kitchen (this will cut down on time spent cleaning, too) except for special occasions.
  • Let the answering machine or voice mail get phone messages during meals; these are times for the family to be together without interruption. (No cell phones or hand held devices at the table except in emergencies.)
  • Let the child help with planning the meal (although she may still need to rebel).
  • Each child is given a smaller amount of each item than she may want; she can always ask for a second helping.
  • At 3, allow a child to eat with her fingers or a spoon, but be realistic about manners; she’ll model herself on your expectations later.
  • If a child has strong feelings about a few items, these can be eliminated, but make no substitutions, because they open the door to struggles.
  • Whether the child is eating or not does not need to be discussed.
  • No punitive approaches! “Of course you’re still hungry. You didn’t eat your beans.” She’ll figure out that connection without you.
  • At the end of a leisurely meal, all food is cleared away. No bargains.
  • Dessert is the conclusion of a satisfying meal, not a reward for “eating what Mommy wants us to eat.”

That’s the ideal. Too often, family mealtimes can be hectic, or missed altogether. Family mealtimes are even more important as opportunities for togetherness in the stressed lives of single parents and dual-career families. Routines such as breakfast and dinner with conversation that shares experiences can compensate for a great deal of separation. Busy working families need to do all they can to maintain shared mealtimes as a way of strengthening stretched ties.

I recommend that working parents aim, at the very least, for shared breakfasts, not least for their nutritional value! You might try some of these approaches to a healthy, happy family breakfast:

  • Set the alarm half an hour earlier.
  • Lay out clothes the night before for the preschool child so arguments the next morning will be minimal.
  • Because low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) in the morning can lead to crankiness, why not put a glass of juice by the child’s bed for her to drink before she gets up and starts moving? She’ll be readier for breakfast if her blood sugar is adequate.
  • Encourage conversation that makes room for each family member. Meals are a social event, a time for communication.
  • Keep breakfast offerings to a minimum. Use routines such as, “We always have cereal. You can have this one or that one.” “Here’s your toast and milk.” Extensive choices are sure to lead to struggles.

Whether a child eats or not may not be worth a battle; you can always send her to school with the toast, fruit or dry cereal in a bag, and a drink. Most learning occurs in the morning.

Family breakfast also is a chance to learn about one another – and to look forward to the day together and prepare for separations as a family.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.