Screens do not belong at the dinner table and we do not belong in front of a screen while we are eating. Here’s why:
- Eating uses all of our senses but the visual system is typically the strongest sensory system of the body. Using a screen means the visual input over-rides the other sensory inputs coming into our brains and bodies. In essence, it is mindless eating.
- Mindless eating means no learning about how to eat, it just means eating. We increase the potential for perpetuating our child’s eating challenges.
- Mindless eating means no dealing with the problem. Children learn to avoid negative feelings and sensations vs. how to deal with them. The screen becomes the coping tool.
- Mindless eating means no building of relationships while eating, and creates greater potential for struggle when eating in social situations, i.e. at school, family functions, out in public.
- Mindless eating means reinforcing negative associations to food and reinforces avoiding it.
So often in my practice, I hear parents tell me that turning on the iPad is the only way their child will eat. This post is not to scold, patronize, or blame parents. It is the opposite! I feel your pain…of course we worry when our children won’t eat! Our parent radar goes through the roof and triggers us to find any way we can to feed our child! But turning to screens to get our children to eat, is a sign that something isn’t working and parents are really worried and feel helpless. Here are 5 things you can do to begin the process of turning screens AWAY from the dinner table:
- Create a time of day that includes screen time! And make sure it happens! Increasing or including screen time at another predictable time of day sets up the expectation that screen time happens…AWAY from the table and it lets the child know they actually get their screen time. It then allows you to use the “you can phrase”…”You can watch your show at x time (insert time of day your child will get their screen time).” If you need to set up more than one predictable screen time, so it seems like they get more of it then do so, just be sure to limit overall screen time through the day, so the problem isn’t shifted to other skills the child needs to be learning. Ideal times of day to include screen time might be for 30 min’s, right after homework is finished or when a child returns home from school, while parents are attempting to get a younger sibling ready for bed, or for 15 min’s once a child is ready for school before they head out the door (assuming time allows).
- Start small and build from there. Limit your child’s mealtime to brief chunks of time that are manageable for everyone. Mealtime does not have to last for an hour or last until everyone is finished eating. If a young sibling is struggling with eating, it’s o.k. to officially end the “family meal” after 10 minutes but say to the older child, “I will sit with you while you finish, I love talking to you.” or to a younger child, “Mealtime is over but I’m going to sit and eat a little more while I talk with your sister.” Setting everyone up for success is key, when attempting to change picky eating behaviors. Remember, these strategies are temporary until eating becomes less of a challenge and starting small is simply “starting”.
- Lead by example. If you watch t.v. or look at your phone while eating, your child will too. Modeling eating behaviors you want to see in your child helps them build their eating skills, even if it’s hard for them to follow-through. Removing screens from the table sends the message that they and the food are the most important things around and that you are in control, which serves to build a foundation of trust and positive boundaries that will carry over into other aspects of your family life.
- Remember they will throw a fit! But learning to eat is a process. If a child has become dependent on a screen to eat removing it and expecting them to eat will cause them stress and they will not eat…at first. They (and you) have to work through ways of managing that stress at mealtime, if improved eating is the goal. However, if tolerating their stress proves to be a hurdle you continue to encounter and results in frequent undue stress at mealtime, despite your efforts, see #5…
- Seek professional support. Picky eating is one of the most stressful parenting challenges I see my clients encounter. It is anxiety provoking for all parties involved, to say the least. Seeking guidance from a professional trained to manage and support clients with picky eating challenges is essential. If the screen has taken over your table, It does not mean you and your child need ongoing therapy (although it might) and it does not mean you have failed as a parent. It means you want to feed your child!!! In my therapy and parent coaching practice, we work to set up routines that are manageable and sustainable for everyone and often picky eating has less to do with the screen than people might think.
Screens have their place; but it’s not at the table. Removing screens from mealtime, teaches children boundaries and coping skills. It also makes room for children to build relationships with food and with people while giving them the opportunity to develop their brains and bodies in pivotal ways that will serve as a foundation for function, throughout their entire lives.