University of Minnesota Extension
Menu Menu

Extension > Live Healthy, Live Well > Ensuring Peaceful Family Mealtimes

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ensuring Peaceful Family Mealtimes

By Kelly Kunkel, Extension Educator — Health and Nutrition

Have you ever fixed dinner only to hear your child say, “I don’t like this — I want a peanut butter sandwich!” This is frustrating for parents who have spent valuable time and energy preparing something else for dinner. These scenes are also disruptive to the harmony parents would like to see at mealtime.

Child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter offers a method for ensuring peaceful family mealtimes. She talks about the “division of responsibility” in feeding children from toddlerhood to adolescence. She says that parents provide meals and snacks, while children decide how much and whether to eat what parents provide. Satter offers the following advice for ensuring drama-free family mealtimes according to children’s age and stage of development.

Preschool-Age Children

Preschool-age children are starting to learn about the consequences of their behaviors. They are also learning how to wield power in a situation and how they fit into relationships. It's important to give your preschooler the chance to learn to like new foods on their own, not because you demand it. Your goal as a parent is to have an enjoyable mealtime without stress and power struggles. Toward that end, Satter offers these tips:
  • Serve meals and snacks at consistent times. For example, say: We are having apples for a snack now. It’s your choice to eat one or not, but remember, after this you can only have water until dinner time.”
  • Plan meals as a family. For example, say: “I hear that you would like a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. We are not having peanut butter sandwiches right now, but we could eat those for lunch tomorrow.”

Elementary School-Age Children

Elementary school-age children are trying to understand and test rules, as well as learn how to cooperate and participate in household chores. They still need the consistency, structure, and support of regular family meals and snacks. Satter provides these suggestions to build healthy eating habits in elementary school-age children:
  • Work with your child to set a time and place for after-school snacks and stick to the routine. Ask your child to help prepare snacks and clean up afterward, too. For example, say: “It’s snack time now, so if you would like a peanut butter sandwich, please help me make it and clean up after.”
  • Remind your child what your family’s food rules are and why they’re important. For example, say: “It’s not time for a snack right now; dinner will be in 15 minutes and you can eat then. Remember we only have water between snack and meal times so you don’t lose your appetite.”


Teenagers are working on developing skills to become independent, personally responsible adults. Your teenager still depends on you to maintain the structure of family meals so they can continue to learn communication skills, experience support, learn healthy eating habits, and practice skills for meal planning, preparation, and clean-up. Satter provides the following suggestions to encourage teens to develop healthy eating habits and mealtime routines on their own:
  • Let your teen manage more of their own snacks and meals. For example, say: “You are in charge of your afternoon snack. I trust you to choose this snack yourself and eat just enough so you’ll still be hungry for dinner.”
  • Ask your teen to take part in mealtime routines, including planning, preparation, and clean-up. For example, say: “It’s your turn to plan and make lunch for all of us tomorrow. Remember to clean up any pots and pans, or any other dishes and utensils you use, when you’re done making the meal.”

Goals for this month

  1. Set regular meal and snack times.
  2. Ask older children and teens to take more responsibility for meal preparation.
  3. Visit The Recipe Box for snack and meal ideas.

Ellyn Satter Institute. (2014). The feeding and eating experts. Retrieved from
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Be a healthy role model for children. Retrieved from


No comments:

  • © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy