Thinking of Using a Screen at Mealtimes?

Feeding can be one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Don’t be hard on yourself if you are considering using screens. If you walk through any restaurant with children in it, likely you will see at least a table or two where there are phones or tablets on the table and the children are watching while eating. Take the children aside, if you walk through any restaurant, how many adults do you see on their phones while sitting at the table? It has become culturally acceptable and many children learn from adults. Screen time for children is another beast that has a lot of emotions and beliefs (many of them very critical and definitive) around, so this is a loaded question.

If you find yourself contemplating using screens at meals, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do I feel about my child using screens at the table?

  • Do I often look at my phone/computer/tablet during mealtimes?

  • What is my goal for giving my child a screen during mealtimes?

The first two questions are more for self-awareness. Often as parents, we may have subconscious beliefs that we are not necessarily aware of. These beliefs are usually coupled with some strong emotions that even if we are not aware of, our children feel, getting mixed messages from us. As a parent, I find if I am not aware of these emotions, it ends up being something that I waver on, confusing my child as I sometimes say yes and sometimes say no. The third question is the one that is often the driving force behind your consideration that we will explore further.

If your goal is to get your child to sit still during the meal time and be quiet?

A screen will do this, but what will it be teaching your child about socializing during mealtimes? In the fast paced society that we live where we are constantly receiving lots of stimulation, mealtimes are a great time to connect with others, converse, be aware of our senses and enjoy the food that we are eating. Family meals are not the norm in many families any more, but are really important for building strong relationships within the family as well as teaching children positive eating behaviors and a positive relationship with food. Studies show that children who grow up having family meals tend to have healthier eating habits, have lower risk of emotional issues, better academic performance, higher self-esteem, and lower risk of substance abuse. It is also important that children are aware of what they are eating and of their body’s cues so they know when they are satisfied.

Are you expecting your child to sit for long periods of time through a meal?

Most young children who come to the table hungry will eat their meal in 15-20 minutes and have a difficult time sitting longer than that at the table. It is best to excuse your child from the table to a safe play area where they can quietly play when they are done so they do not have to sit at the table. If you find yourself in a restaurant that your child will have to sit longer than that, make sure you have activities that your child can do to entertain themselves after they are done or if it’s possible, choose a restaurant that the staff and other diners will not be fazed if your child is walking around after they are finished.

Are you trying to distract your child so s/he eats more?

This is a common reason that parents or caregivers often resort to using screens during meals. What is your worry that you want your child to eat more? If you are worried your child is not eating enough, this may be a more complex problem than your child eating at mealtimes. If your child is growing regularly, following their growth curve and meeting all developmental milestones, likely there is no concern with the amount of food your child is eating. Your expectations may be different than your child’s needs. By using screens during mealtimes, you may increase your child’s intake and ease your own worries, however this may have negative consequences which can manifest in a negative relationship with food, weight issues and/or eating disorders in older children.

No matter what your reason for considering using screens during meals, hopefully you are thinking a little more about what your goals are for your child’s eating. By making mealtimes pleasant and enjoyable, children will want to come to the table and eat.

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