Written by Caroline Meyer

While parents are often concerned about what their children eat and how much they are eating, there are also concerns about inappropriate behaviour at the table. In general, monitoring their weight, general health and correcting table manners are the best ways to keep eating issues in check. For most children, eating issues are quickly outgrown. For some kids the behaviour may need intervention to correct, especially where there are health concerns. 

The media is full of messages about obesity and its detrimental effect on health and welfare. However, unhealthy food is advertised by good looking, slim actors which sends a mixed message to children. The opposite problem also occurs when there is an obsession with healthy eating and maintaining or reducing weight, which can lead to eating disorders, even in really young children. 

Most food-related behaviours can be addressed by changing the foods available in the home and improving activity as well as encouraging discipline. This still allows for occasion treats without being obsessive about food. Some of the signs to look for that may indicate a deeper problem is if the child continually worries about their weight or how they look. If they start to lose weight or gain weight at an abnormal rate there may be an eating problem that needs to be addressed. Eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa are not as common in younger children but are more often seen in adolescent children. There have however been cases of children under the age of 12 suffering from severe eating disorders. 


Slowed growth and a decreased appetite can occur in children around the age of 12 months. This is fairly common and not usually a problem. When kids are coerced or forced in to eating or a lot of focus is put on eating habits, this can lead to an eating problem. The excessive attention may work in the opposite direction of what the parents want to achieve. The child may refuse to eat in order to gain the attention usually given when they do so. They may even vomit when parents try to force deed them. The high levels of negativity and tension during mealtimes makes for emotional scenes and unpleasantness. Try setting a variety of healthy options in front of the child, leave it for half an hour and then remove the food, without discussion or undue attention to eating / not eating. During mealtimes drinks other than water can be offered, but the rest of the time, only water should be allowed. You can also offer 2 or 3 healthy snacks during the day, which does not need to be eaten at the table. Have the main meal at a table, with everyone talking and enjoying the meal together, without other distractions. This may also encourage the child to join in. Behaviours such as dropped food can be ignored during the meal, but the child should participate in clean-up afterwards. If none of these methods work and the child is undernourished or is not growing at a reasonable pace, consult with your medical professional. 


Moderation is key. Obesity can have long term health effects on your child. It can lead to self-esteem issues, health conditions and even problems interacting socially. Children that are overweight are also more likely to become overweight adults. Do not use forced diets to encourage a child to lose weight, instead offer healthy food choices and remove the temptation of sugary and fatty foods. Encourage moderation and give them foods that are enjoyable without being unhealthy. Encourage exercise and play that they enjoy. Getting a child active is a good way to bring their weight in to check without forcibly reducing their meal sizes.  Eating food containing high fibre combined with plenty of fruit and veg as well as drinking water will go a long way to preventing or reducing obesity in young children. 


Poor table manners can include throwing food, eating with your mouth open, fidgeting or simply eating too slowly. Sit your child or children down and lay down the rules of eating at the table. Explain what you expect of them as well as what the consequences will be for not following the rules. You can also instil a reward system for good behaviour at the table such as giving stickers after a meal where they have behaved and allowing them to cash in 10 stickers for a small reward (preferably not food related). 


Some kids will simply refuse to eat the food that has been prepared and demand other food items. This can make it difficult for parents that are trying to ensure their kids get a balanced, nutritional diet. Giving in to fussy eaters may result in the problem becoming even worse. There may be food phobias, sensory issues or motor skill problems causing problems, this is especially true if certain textures seem to be an issue. If you suspect this, you should discuss it with your doctor for further testing. If there are no underlying issues, the power struggles at the table could be reinforcing the negative behaviours. Offer your child a variety of foods and avoid arguments over what they do or do not eat. Encourage them to try foods, but do not force feed or threaten. Unless there is a problem with the child’s health or they are not getting the nutrition they need, there is no real cause for concern. They will eventually outgrow this phase as well. 


Some children will continually complain that they are hungry. This can result due to confusing the body’s signals of thirst or exhaustion for hunger. Boredom, excitement and anxiety can also be confused for hunger. Besides 3 proper meals a day, a child should not be eating more than 2 to 3 small, healthy snacks in between meals. Teach your children to eat only until they are full. As long as they are growing well and maintaining a good weight, there should not be any cause for concern. Limit extra servings and additional snacks. Suggest methods of reducing other emotions and see if it has an effect on their need to graze. 


Some children may be overly focussed on food. This can also lead to overeating and obesity. Children that constantly ask what is being offered for the next meal, especially after having just completed a meal, may be overly food focussed. Other children may obsess about the calories in food and may refuse to eat certain foods they consider “bad”, out of a fear of becoming overweight. Teach your children about nutrition and ensure the emphasis is on their health, and not how many calories are in a carrot. 

The best way to ensure your kids eat healthy and behave at the table is to set a good example. Eat healthy and prepare healthy meals for your family. Participate in exercise and other healthy practises. Show your children how to use silverware, request condiments and use a glass or serviette at the table as well as other behaviours that we consider to be desirable when sitting at the table. Learning from a role model such as a parent is the best way to improve eating habits in children.