Dealing with the Pokey Eater in Preschool and Beyond
Preschoolers are notorious dawdlers, according to grown-up standards. They are just so curious! They do not understand the concept of time or deadlines… what a wonderful way to live! Unfortunately for the parents of preschoolers, who could lose their job for continued tardiness, this charming preschool habit is not so desirable after all. But how can we hurry our little ones along, yet not stamp out the natural curiosity and wonder of childhood?
There is no easy answer, but there are a few compromises that can be reached.
Choose Your Battles
First, chose your battles carefully. Not every war needs to be won. If your child dawdles during dinner, you can allow him the extra time to pick away at his food. You can begin together as a family, sharing a simple table grace if such is your habit, and encourage family chat, the together time when everyone talks about their day, their dreams, and their challenges. But as the older members of the family finish, they could remain for a few minutes more, then simply leave the table but allow the pokey eater to finish his meal. One parent should remain in the room, to ensure that the child doesn’t choke on something, or decide to see how the walls would look if papered in mashed potatoes. The parent could continue to talk with the preschooler in an upbeat, friendly manner, while loading the dishwasher, or putting away the left-overs.
Breakfast, however, is a different situation. For many families, breakfast is only a short part of a busy morning schedule that includes getting dressed, packing lunches, gathering school supplies, and loading the car to head out in various directions to school, work, and day care. There simply isn’t enough time to allow the slow eater to take his time.One solution, of course, is to get up earlier. At least, to wake the pokey eater up earlier, have him dress earlier, and begin on his meal sooner. This can work much of the time, because studies have shown that eating slower is actually very healthy. Most of us inhale our food. We barely chew it, then wash it down our throat with a glass of milk or water, and wonder why we suffer from indigestion. Each bite of food we take is supposed to thoroughly and carefully chewed – twenty times or more – until it is a soft, soggy mass well-saturated with saliva. Instead of hurrying along our preschooler, we should be working to slow ourselves down!
Some preschoolers are too easily distracted. I’ve noticed that my granddaughter cannot eat breakfast while watching cartoons. She may be very hungry, but while focused on the television, she will simply hold her toast or cereal and forget to put it in her mouth. So, the natural consequence is, turn off the television. This should be obvious, and should be true for every meal and snack. When we eat, we should concentrate on eating. We should visit with our family. We should be pleasant and respectful of one another, for this improves digestion, besides building strong families.
Other things that might distract the preschooler include the family pet, loud music, too much going on, unpleasant conversation, ringing telephones and buzzing doorbells. You cannot control every distraction, but it is in your best interest to limit as many as possible. Develop a house rule that cell phones are to be silenced during meal times. Turn off or down the radio. Do not use mealtimes to rehash past disagreements, and put the dog out or in another room.
To help your young child focus on the meal, set the table and eat there. Sometimes use the good dishes, sometimes use pretty paper tableware. Sometimes light candles or place a low bouquet of flowers for the centerpiece. Dim the lights, but not too low. Create a feeling of togetherness that will draw your child in. He will want to be a part of this, and will have healthier eating habits as a result.
Eliminate Between-Meal SnacksAnother cause for dawdling is a lack of hunger. This is especially true in our culture, where food is constantly available. Schedule regular meal times and regular snack times, and do NOT allow your child to eat in between. If your child complains that he is hungry in between meals, most of the time he is really thirsty. Allow him a glass of water. Many people mistake hunger for thirst. If your child is truly hungry, he must have decided not to eat what was offered to him at the last meal. Remind him that it was his choice, and perhaps at the next meal he will make a better choice. All children should be able to go two and a half to three hours between eating. If breakfast is at 7am, and lunch is at noon, then a small – emphasis on the word “small” – snack can be served at 9:30. After lunch, typically the preschooler naps, then afternoon snack is at 3:00pm, with dinner at 5:30 or 6:00pm. The preschool child should be in bed by 7:30, so no more snacks are required. Examine your child’s eating schedule, and see if he is getting too many snacks or too much food during the day. Cut back on serving sizes, and you may find that your hungrier child eats more quickly.
Use a Timer
One final option, is to set a timer. A good time is about twenty minutes. Let your child know that this meal time will be twenty minutes long. When the timer dings, the meal is over. Then do not nag him. Set the timer in front of him, so he can see the passage of time – which is a good pre-science and pre-math activity. When the timer does go off, simply remove the rest of the child’s food from the table. If he howls, be calm, be patient, but be firm. Remind him that he has had enough time to eat, and meal time is over. He chose to take too long. Tomorrow, he will have the opportunity to make better choices. Let him get down from the table, but DO NOT give him any snacks until the next scheduled time. Let his slight hunger be his guide. You are not punishing him. You are teaching him that actions have consequences, and helping him to learn responsibility. This is a wonderful lesson for him to learn!
With a little patience and loving guidance, you can create a harmonious home where every member of the family feels loved and valued. That is a far more important goal, than whether your child can inhale his breakfast in ten minutes or less.