We want our 5 (almost 6) year old daughter to do certain things while we are eating together -- she should remain seated, use cutlery instead of eating with her hands, and eat at least a tiny bit of everything.

She doesn't want to, she constantly wants to jump off to get things, play with her baby brother, eat with her hands, or eat nothing at all.

So the way it often goes is that we tell her to use cutlery, she doesn't, we tell her again, she doesn't, we threaten punishment... every small thing becomes a power struggle and the atmosphere is extremely negative.

If we don't do that, she eats a tiny bit (or nothing) with her hands and leaves, we don't think that is acceptable.

We have used a system in the past where she got a sticker if she went the whole meal without standing up, or without eating with her hands. It worked for a few days, then she stopped caring and went back to her old ways.

We want to have some minimal standards, but we really need to get a more positive atmosphere. How can we?

NOTE: this has a long history; as a newborn she had cow milk allergy that hurt her through her mother's breast milk, and reflux. She refused to eat anything besides mother's milk until 14 months (growth halted at 8 months, she even lost some weight in the half year after), until she got an infection in her mouth and refused to eat altogether. She was in the hospital for a week. Then we finally got her to eat, but she needed distraction with toys etc while eating -- this got worse and worse until she needed lots of distraction for every single bite. Then she was in eating therapy until 3.5 years or so, and we were able to get her to open her mouth and accept spoons with food on command. Then we switched to regular food that she eats herself and we had to leave that system, since then it's a big power struggle to get her to eat at all -- but she is eating enough now.

Edit: note that she eats enough now! I'm not afraid that she doesn't get enough nutrients, the problem is now how we can have meals with a little less tension and also still get her to behave a bit better.

We all hate meals though, and they're always power struggles...

  • 2
    This is hardly an unique problem, and from personal experience I can say is not related to a prior illness, but to a short attention span.
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 23:12
  • Right there with you. My daughter hates food. She is at less than the 1 percentile for weight and basically doesn't grow. Only I can get her to eat. Only canned peaches, yogurt and very tiny amounts of the very few other things she doesn't just spit right out. She gets just enough for the doctors to say she doesn't need a g-tube. About all I can say is make it fun. She likes it when I go around the dollhouse letting the dolls take bites, then letting her take one. It takes forever and it makes me insane, but it works. Mine wont stay at a table either. I gave up on that a long time ago.
    – Kai Qing
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 0:53
  • So, she will eat, there are foods she likes, she just doesn't like to sit at the table right? Just clarifying before I attempt to answer-my oldest had similar food aversions bc of an early illness and mealtime was hell. My 4YO currently hates eating too (no history of illness.)
    – Jax
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 4:19
  • Parent of a 7-year-old here - still no idea!
    – DaveDev
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 9:41
  • She will eat, she likes mostly the carb part of foods (potatoes, pasta, pancakes), but is hardly unique in that. Just if it were up to her, she'd take two bites and get back to playing. We can correct her by constantly reminding her, but have to do that the entire meal. She can concentrate on things, but is not interested in concentrating on meals. Nothing terribly strange, I just want to know how to deal with it without making meals stressful for all of us.
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 10:43

7 Answers 7


The problem with issues like table manners is twofold: first, you want your children to behave appropriately; but second, you also want your children to choose to behave appropriately. Teaching the first is not all that difficult; punishments, delivered appropriately, will certainly yield a result eventually.

Teaching the second, however, won't necessarily come with punishments. Your child will need to learn why she needs to behave in that manner, and that reason is not "because I told you so". The reason is complicated, but ultimately comes down to a combination of "wanting to satisfy your nutritional needs", "society expects you to act in a certain way", "family time is important", etc.; but even there, you need her to understand those as well, and to decide to value those things (at least some). A five year old likely doesn't completely understand why it's important to eat a balanced meal, doesn't really get why she should follow societal norms, and doesn't care much about family time.

We struggle with this some with our three year old, probably as much as any other parents do I suspect. How we deal with this, is twofold.

First, when we ask him to come to dinner and he resists, we remind him why we're asking him. Then, we also provide him a reason to want to cooperate. This isn't always ideal, because I'd rather him cooperate because of the good reasons inherent in the activity - but it does help reinforce the activity, which is good in itself. This is basically how the conversation goes, except it often stops earlier than the last line; as he grows older and matures, we hope to see it become internal largely, where he understands all of these whys.

R, please come to dinner, it's dinnertime.

I don't want to have dinner.

I know, but it's important that you eat dinner so you aren't hungry, and so you grow up big and strong.

I don't want to have dinner. I'm not hungry.

Okay, but we still eat dinner together at the table so we can spend some time together. Besides, you might like some of what we made.

I don't want to have dinner. I want to play.

I know, and I love you, but everyone needs to sit together just for a little while. Why don't you come pick out which plate and fork you want to use?

I want Cars fork.

And now he's at the dinner table. Also works is "What drink do you want" and "Do you want to help serve?" from time to time (if it's something he can help with at his age). We do sometimes have discussions about some of the 'why' questions above - 'Why do we eat together', 'Why do I need to eat to grow up big and strong', etc.; if he asks, we have a (short) discussion about it. He's only 3, but he already has a pretty decent understanding of some of this.

We would use a few techniques that are not exactly positive, if needed; particularly, 'no playing with toys during dinner', and the final alternative to dinner is going directly to bed (which is used only if I'm too sick is the reason - if you're truly sick, you should go to bed early, and in the few cases he's been willing to do that, I believe he probably was happier that way). But overall, we try to keep it positive as much as possible, because that will lead (hopefully!) to more buy-in on his part.

The major advantage of trying to get buy-in as opposed to using punishments to enforce behavior is that she will choose to behave this way when not around you more easily. It also allows her to develop her own personality more - while at 5 or 6 you probably don't have much opportunity to choose to participate (or not) in socially appropriate behavior, as she gets older she should have some choice here - so long as she has a concrete understanding of what that choice means. As an adult it took me years to learn to eat anything with my hands, because I'd been trained to not do so: so eating fried chicken with my hands was a difficult task for quite a few years, because it took me a long time to undo the 'training' that it was just wrong to eat that way; anything not on a bread product was off limits entirely. I learned over time what was appropriate and not, and why - but you can help your daughter learn this at a younger age, and should.

More explanation of this basic strategy towards child rearing is available in several books, including Parent Effectiveness Training. The basic concept is avoiding punishments, and instead teaching your child - even from an extremely young age - why you're asking him or her to do whatever you're asking.

  • 1
    This is an excellent suggestion. If your concern is the power struggle, then (perhaps counterintuitively) empower your daughter. Give her choices to make that do not ultimately affect the outcome (her sitting down and eating her food) but still give her a sense of empowerment and responsibility. Things like letting her choose which utensils she uses, or which vegetable she'd like to eat, or even where at the table she sits.
    – Doktor J
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 20:33
  • This works very well with everything not related to food! I mean, there are lots of other fights (getting dressed, cleaning up the mess after playing etc) and there we've managed to nag less and instead give her more choice and make it more fun, works great. But at the dinner table that's a very delicate subject for us, because of her history of wanting ever more distraction for every bite. We want a strict 'no playing at the dinner table' rule.
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 10:48
  • "Why should she behave" - this is the essential point. I'm 30, I'm mostly eating on the sofa while watching TV and sometimes eating a pizza over the course of a whole evening (3 hours) I don't have any medical problems, and neither does she... So if the only reason you want her to behave is "because we want you to do this" - it is a power-struggle and nothing will change that. If there is no medical need, it is just your personal preference for her to sit at the table. If you want her to, you have to negotiate
    – Falco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 13:26
  • 1
    I didn't even know car forks were an option! I want car forks!!! Commented May 15, 2018 at 8:32

The balance of power is very one-sided in a parent/child relationship. Children have very little power unless allowed by the parents. Probably you are giving her too much power because you want the outcome more than she does. The way to take it back is to find something she wants more, and take it away, or something she hates even worse, and make her endure it.

You say you are threatening punishment, but are you following through quickly? There should be no opportunity for a struggle. You give one or two warnings, then administer the consequence decisively. If it's not up for debate, don't debate it with her. Don't try to get the last word, because kids always win that game. Ignore her arguments, and if she persists, remove her from the situation until she's ready to accept her responsibility and come back.

That being said, I try not to be that harsh except for issues that are truly not up for debate. In my opinion, that would include quickly eating enough to meet her nutritional needs. Given your daughter's history, I personally would let the cutlery and sitting down go for now, and just focus on the core issue. After she has that down, you can add more requirements one at a time. Pick your battles, and you're more likely to win them.

  • 2
    I think the speed is important, because otherwise she will drag it out all night. Set an amount and set a timer. If she's not done when the timer rings, impose a consequence and start again. It won't speed her up the first day, but if the consequence is bad enough, it will work within a few weeks. I've done it before, multiple times. Works great with a dessert incentive too. If you're not ready when everyone else is ready for dessert, you don't get any. Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 20:54
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    She never wants dessert, she hates being at the table so much that she just runs off when allowed. I feel that setting timers etc would just increase the tension and power struggle everybody feels at the table even more. I'm afraid she'll just go straight to anorexia when she reaches puberty, or something, need to find a way to make her hate the whole thing less...
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 21:34
  • 6
    Yes, this is one of those situations where it has to get worse before it gets better. Trust me though, it will get better. Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 21:40
  • 3
    I know it sounds harsh, but the best punishment for not eating is not eating. When that timer goes off, dinner is over. She goes to bed hungry once or twice and this will stop. I promise. (Just be prepared for an extra big breakfast the next morning.)
    – RubberDuck
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 16:29
  • 1
    Maybe, maybe not @KarlBielefeldt. I've found that if you treat a "different" child like they're different, and they will behave differently. Best thing to do is to treat them like a "normal" kid. Perhaps that's not best given the medical situation though. I'm not a doctor.
    – RubberDuck
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 16:37

Something important is missing here, and that's her pattern of behavior away from the table. That has to be a factor in all of this. If she's a little bundle of energy all the other times, well, it's going to be harder.

My first question is, what did she get for her stickers? If all she got were stickers, that wouldn't work for me, either! How would you feel is you went to work, and you got "paid" by getting a pretty bunch of stickers on a sheet of paper? That may sound silly, but the reward needs to be an actual reward - to her.

One of your options is to up the reward to something meaningful. At the same time, it needs to occur in a time frame she can hold out for. Younger children need immediate rewards; your daughter is at an age where she need to get a reward in a few days time at most. What does she love that you think is something she might benefit from working for? (You can always ask her.) It could be an activity you do together as well as a more concrete object.

Another option is to use discipline more effectively. Some parents don't believe in disciplining a child. Done well, though, I think it's a valuable learning experience, not a way to turn your kids into little marionettes. My favorite book on discipline is 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phalen. One of the things I love about 1-2-3 Magic is that arguing is dispensed with entirely (obviously if done wisely).

Inconsistency, though, is counter-productive. Though it is difficult, always follow through on boundaries you set with/for a child. That involves negotiation away from the area of conflict, and picking your battles.

I think you're wise here to be wary of food fights. Food has been her enemy often enough. My usual approach is that no child voluntarily starves in the presence of food, but your daughter has more than the typical history with food. You might want to check her health a bit more deeply than the average 6 year old (in other words, blood tests to rule out nutritional problems) and possibly to ask a therapist about a plan of action. To be reassured that she's quite well might help you to relax a bit about what she eats and concentrate on how she's eating instead.

  • 3
    Love the second paragraph -- I get paid with a bunch of dull green paper, but it's the ability to exchange that paper for food/toys that make it worthwhile :)
    – Acire
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 13:27
  • The stickers were a real reward to her, amazingly so! She really likes getting stickers, and I bought the exact ones she wanted. It's just that after a few days she failed to meet the requirements once, and then sort of gave up on getting them. Her behaviour at the rest of times is that she is full of energy and fantasy and play at all times, and hates dinner because it means she has to sit on a chair and not play. We have all sorts of power struggles with her on other subjects (like getting dressed in time for school) but we find it's easier to deal with that.
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 10:50
  • Because we can empower her, turn it into little games, etc -- but with eating she'll just make immediate use of that and demand ever more games for every bite, we must avoid avoid that route.
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 10:51
  • Also saying "I will count to 3, and then you have done <x>" works absurdly well on her, I guess that's 1-2-3 magic? The problem is that we can't do that for every single bite, it'll probably stop working and anyway doesn't lead to our goal of a relaxed meal.
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 10:52

What follows assumes you've tried the method of explaining to the child why she should behave a certain way, and that hasn't worked. (Sadly, it turns out that understanding and behavior are only very weakly linked with one another.)

Here's the science of operant conditioning would suggest you do:

  1. Be very specific about what you want. Often, this means identifying the positive opposite of what you don't want. If you don't know what behavior you want to cultivate, it will be hard to train. Sometimes it's a long list. That's OK, just pick your top two or three and start there. For our extremely energetic 4yo boy, it was (a) sitting in his chair for the entire meal, (b) asking for and receiving permission before leaving the table ("May I please be excused?"), (c) trying at least one bite of everything on his plate, (d) leaving what he didn't like on his plate without complaint (no 'Gross!' or 'I hate it!'), (e) asking politely for things he wanted ('please pass the..'); (f) engaging in conversation with grown-ups. We started with a & b, then did c, d, and e, then f.

  2. At least three times a meal, praise your child for doing what she should be doing when she does it. The praise should: (a) immediately follow the behavior you want to reinforce, (b) be enthusiastic, (c) describe exactly is good, and (d) be accompanied by something nonverbal like an affectionate touch or high-five. Three or more times a meal may seem like it's a lot, and it would be if you had to do it forever. But you won't! After a week or two, you'll find you won't be doing it all because your child will just start to do the thing you are praising. (Congratulations, you've just helped your child develop a good habit!)

  3. Ignore the bad behavior entirely. Behavior experts agree that emotional responses -- even negative ones -- reinforce behavior. (I find this very frustrating. If I could teach my child by scolding, I would. Personally, I find scolding to be very satisfying for me in the moment -- it's the main habit I've had to train myself out of!)

There are other ways to reward good behavior: stickers, etc. But the best and easiest is your praise and affection. Children crave it, and respond to it. And guess what: it works in tons of other situations, too! Try it out science-style: keep a lab-style journal of your effort for two weeks, and track the number of bad behaviors. When I first tried this out, it was like magic -- like when you see physics in action.

Things that recommend this method: (1) it is very simple and explicit; (2) it is based on science: research shows that this type of reward in particular increases compliance; (3) it is loving & non-shaming; (4) it doesn't reinforce the bad behavior with scolding, escalating, or punishment. And, don't forget: you get to have a lot of loving and affectionate interactions with your child! It's win-win! (Well, except for having to give up on scolding.)

For more details, have a look at Alan Kazdin, Everyday Parenting Techniques. Also, I love that science helped me help my kid to be happy and well-behaved. Yay, science!


Make eating with cutlery a privilege, not a duty.

Don't give her any cutlery for a while, then give her sloppy food without a spoon (you can leave a spoon or fork lying around). Ask "are you big enough to use a fork?". Use some cute fork with a cartoon figure on it.

Set a good example. Always eat tidily, and make it a fun time, where people chat about their day. Let her feed you with your own fork.

Get her involved in preparation - she can cut up tomatoes with her craft scissors, etc.

Take her shopping - mmm, what shall we cook today, what do you fancy?

  • I agree that the solution is probably somewhere in this direction, and she likes to help with preparation a lot. We've been trying to get her involved in the choice of what we're going to eat for a year or so, but haven't got anything besides "pancakes, french fries, icecream or candy" (in that order) out of her yet.
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 10:54
  • @Remco -- One way to help nudge her towards healthier choices when meal planning is to list options ("should we have carrots, green beans, or peas as our vegetable?")... we resorted to this after similar proposals from our kids :)
    – Acire
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 20:16

My daughter, now 8.5, also used to struggle us at every situation she got in (and she still does). I don't want this, I don't want that, you never listen to me, my brother may do that but I don't, it's always my fault, you don't love me, I don't love you, and so on.

This is life, these are kids, that's almost standard. No kid in the world grows up sitting at the table eating like a princess. It is a struggle, it is a fight. This sounds harsh, but this is reality. The question is, how do you turn it into something acceptable. I think that setting clear rules makes it easier for all. E.g.: Everyone sits at the table until only on person is left eating, and then you may get up. If you get up too early without asking, we will take away your music for tonight.

It is you who set the rules. You determine what boundaries may be touched or even bent, and what is the line not to cross. Most important: you are responsible that your kid doesn't want to cross the line. You must be willing to do what you threaten with. If you say "I will take away your doll for a week" but you never do, you have lost. Every single time you threaten her but don't punish her after crossing the line, making her accept that line gets harder. Think of it when threatening her in anger - yelling is not productive either. Be calm and act as if it is not a discussion, as it is not. Tell her it is not a discussion, tell her why you punish her, tell her what her reward is if she behaves good. Tell her afterwards that she determined the outcome.

In my opinion treating her like a special kid will make her special. If she gets used to being special, she will fully accept that role and play it against you. The sister of my wife is such a person and that is nothing you want your daughter to be.

Of course acting like you want her to act (beeing a good example) is self-explanatory. Distracting her from what she is complaining about may help once or twice, but only shows that you don't wanna enforce your own rule and the including punishment.

The goal is to reach a level where everyone knows that it is not worth discussing about sitting at the table. This process will take about 20 years.

  • I know :-(. I also distinctly remember that I was the exact same as a kid, including the lines "You're only being this difficult because you're in puberty!" "Yes! And when you let me do what I want, that's when I'll be an adult at last!"... but still, we do manage to let her dress herself, clean up after her etc, and even make it somewhat fun for all every now and then, but eating is so hard...
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 11:03
  • We actually started ignoring her when she starts screaming about little stuff, and she returns to dealing with herself and cools down. But that is not what you want at your table. It also hurts punishing her for being a child, but on the other hand is that the way to grow up. It of course is hard to tell from far away. For us it really helped to switch from being "helpful and understanding" to "strict and powerful" in certain situations and by turning down discussions.
    – Peter Pan
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 12:00

I think it's important to solve why is she hating food? What message are you sending about food? From the description, it sounds like "It's time you stop playing and try to behave and eat" Maybe you also are taking the meal time as a tedious routine... I agree with RedSonja, get her involved in preparation and make it a fun time to be together.

  • She just wants to play, not sit at the table. It is a tedious routine for all of us, with a lot of tension, because of our history. We've managed to relax a lot compared to before, and now she does eat part of her meal but with her hands. Now we're trying to improve the way she eats somewhat without making it all stressed again.
    – Remco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 10:56

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