Shifting Your School-Aged Child From Mealtime Mess To Neater Eater

If your kid is covered with food come dinner time, make a few small changes and see a drastic difference to their eating etiquette!

In a world where parents are understandably most focused on picky eaters, having children who get as much food on their face and the floor as they do in their bellies is often simply accepted as part of the job. After all, at least they're eating, right?

I have a friend who disagrees. Her nine-year-old daughter has a healthy appetite and is open to trying new foods, but she ends up with food everywhere, sometimes even in her ears and hair. It exasperates her mother, especially if they're dining at a restaurant or if Maddie comes home from school with remnants of her lunch still stuck to her face—despite the napkin Susan puts in her lunchbox every day.

School-age children with no developmental concerns generally have the physical and cognitive skills to be neater eaters. While some parents couldn't care less about mealtime messiness, others can't stomach sitting across from a face covered in food. However you feel about a sloppy meal consumption, at some point, the outside world will have expectations of your child's eating habits.

There is hope for parents wondering how to convert their kids to neater eaters with the following techniques:

Have the talk

Kids don't always realize they are "big" enough to eat in a tidy manner, especially if their cute baby faces covered in spaghetti were laughed at and photographed with glee. It's hard not to laugh when they're so adorable, but school-aged kids don't always understand that as they grow, what was funny when they were small becomes less entertaining. Start out with a friendly conversation about being a "big kid" now and explain that part of being big means trying to avoid getting food everywhere. This often motivates children to emulate adult, neater-eater techniques.

Get rid of distractions

Not paying attention and not looking at the incoming morsel causes kids to miss the target, so keep toys and books away from the table and turn off the TV and other electronics. At school, it's hard to control the distraction of other kids, but slipping your children a cute note in their lunchboxes helps remind them to keep it neat and use the napkin provided.

Utensils are key

Kids who prefer a hands-on approach over utensils can be gently "invited" to use the proper tools for eating. Parents should ensure those utensils are comfortably-sized for their child's hands and provide instructions for their usage. Showing kids how much to put on those utensils avoids surplus food from dropping down onto shirts and laps. Don't forget to include a napkin and instructions on how to use it after every few bites as part of the neater-eater toolkit!

Pace is everything

Rushing through meals creates more mess. Gentle encouragement, simple rewards for slowing down or asking a child to chew a certain number of times all help. A relaxed dining atmosphere and no urgent plans after the meal also put the brakes on plate-to-mouth racing.

It's a full-body approach

Proper posture and sitting close enough to the table really do help, as does keeping lips together while chewing. While it's fun and important to chat during meals, try to encourage kids to talk only after they've swallowed, so the risk of food escape is minimized. If motor skills or hand/eye coordination aren't quite as refined as they could be, work on them. Many kids just don't feel food stuck to their face, so a quick rub around their mouth before they begin eating can "wake up" the sensory nerves in that area to be more sensitive. Even showing children their post-meal face before cleaning it helps them to see why you're asking them to be neater eaters.

Don't be responsible for their mess

Cleanup is a drag for everyone, which means assigning cleanup to the person who made the mess may motivate that same little person to make less of it! It doesn't have to be delivered as a punishment; simply make cleaning their own face and eating area a regular post-meal task for your child. Parenting Writer Anne Radcliffe confirms this method works most of the time for her son and eventually the connection will be made that neater eating equates to less work after they're done eating.

Keep it positive

Sarcasm and shaming never help, no matter how annoyed you are. Take deep breaths and count to ten before you deliver gentle constructive criticism, or avoid negative feedback altogether. Offer praise for a job well done and notice efforts. Manage your expectations; your child won't convert overnight to a neater eater; it takes time and practice.

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