Supporting Mealtime Routines

Communication, socialization, a sense of family and belonging, sensory exploration, relaxation, and celebration are all part of the mealtime routine, and vary from meal to meal, family to family.

Feeding efficiency can be improved by limiting the length of the feeding session, and allowing for frequent breaks. Breastfed infants may feed six to eight times per day or more depending on the age of the infant.  Infants should feed as long and as often as they want to. The parent’s breasts should feel smaller and softer after feeds, and she should hear the baby swallow and see jaw movement during the feed.

Refer to: Healthy Parents Healthy Children

For infants and children accepting solid foods, meals may be as short as five to 10 minutes for some children but as a general recommendation should not exceed 30 minutes for meals, and 10 to 15 minutes for snacks. This may need to be adjusted based on a child’s individual need. Total time spent orally feeding meals and snacks should not exceed four to six hours per day (Braegger, Decsi, Dias, Hartmann, & Kolacek, 2010); (Klawitter, 2003)

Other aspects:

  • consistent routine helps the child to learn the difference between hunger and satiation (Satter, 2007)
  • different families and cultures have various social expectations, rules, and ideas on appropriate manners at mealtimes. It is important that the child’s and family’s normal mealtime routine is identified and considered in deciding strategies collaboratively
  • when working with parents and children to facilitate feeding skills, it is important to consider the child’s needs and responses:
    • minimize distracting stimuli, such as excessive noise or light, toys, TV or iPad
    • minimize care routines around feeding times that may fatigue the child
    • provide opportunities for the child to see, smell and touch food
  • Aid/arouse child to be ready for feeding using strategies to facilitate meal time engagement, e.g. unwrap the infant, change diaper or utilize visual cues, hand wash, set table.

Refer to: Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants: Recommendations from Six to 24 Months

Setting up a Mealtime Routine

Research shows setting a mealtime routine is important for success. Encourage infant and child to be fed at the family table or within the typically family setting, e.g. infant can be breastfed at the table, cultural practices such as eating as a family on the floor. Designate a place by using visual cues to indicate that it is meal time, e.g. table cloth, placemat. However, be aware that it is also important to encourage flexibility to allow children to engage in mealtimes in different contexts and environments, e.g. school, eating out, holidays (Toomy & Ross, 2011).

Create a routine:

  • offer a verbal cue, e.g. ten minutes before the meal time
  • offer transition cues/activities to bring child to the table; engage with the child in-person before transitioning them to the table (Harvard University, 2016); (Griffith & Stapleton, 2013)

Refer to: YouTube: 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return

  • create a positive, and relaxed mealtime environment; talk about the events of the day; describe food and its properties: colour, shape, texture, and temperature; and comment on what the child is doing well. Avoid talk that includes cajoling, bribing and subjective food descriptions (“Mmm, this is yummy!”) (Toomy & Ross, 2011)
  • encourage the child to stay at the table for the duration of the meal and have a clear finishing routine, e.g. wipe hands and/or face, help clear the table (Cathey & Gaylord, 2004)