The rules for meal time at my house are pretty simple. I hope that when you read through them you will find something that you, too, can use with your own family.
Give appropriately sized portions. It's pretty straightforward, but sometimes I'll look down at a plate and go, "Okay, Treva, where is your head tonight?" Usually it's because I've put too much food on my daughter's plate, but sometimes I put too little on one of the adult plates. With a few exceptions, my daughter eats about one-third to half of what my husband and I eat. The exceptions come in with food she particularly likes or dislikes. If she really likes something, I'll give her extra. Some of my daughter's favorite foods are salmon (she eats a 4 oz piece just like me and my husband), broccoli, green beans, raw carrots, cheese, yogurt, salad, tomatoes and tomato juice, just about any form of pork, and ANY kind of fruit. If she doesn't like it, I scale back and give her less of the item. This is important to note because of the 2nd rule.
It's also important to make sure my daughter knows that she can always have seconds. She takes a major growth spurt every year around her birthday. Seconds at dinnertime can be extremely important for her because she does not get a snack before bed. (There is simply not enough time for her to have a snack and her body to properly digest it before getting to sleep and that's not healthy.) Sometimes we do not always seconds and if that is the case I will offer something else -- fruit, granola bar, cup of yogurt, etc.
Complaining about the food is simply not tolerated. Complain and you could end up with another 2 bites of it to eat. We went through a period of time when our daughter would not eat anything. I think every kid does this. I was kind of at a loss for what to do. My husband and I tried just about everything trying to have a war-free zone and eventually we settled on Amy Dacyczyn's methods outlined in The Complete Tightwad Gazette. Basically, when our daughter complains, we remind her that it's not allowed. We don't expect her to like every food, but we expect her to eat the food we give her. It's not about a clean plate. It's about reducing waste and learning to eat what is presented (a lifelong skill of unending use in my personal opinion). If the complaints continue, I will excuse myself to the kitchen and bring back 2 more bites of the offending food.
This is where it's important to note that I'm very careful to scale back on the few items my daughter does not like -- bell peppers and brown rice come to mind instantly -- so she starts with very little of those foods, maybe 3 bites. This method will not work for everyone. It is what worked for us. It's also important to note that we have only had to resort to the 2 extra bites a handful of times; once she realized we were serious about complaints not being tolerated, they stopped. We have not actually had to do this in over 4 months.
Be respectful. We also went through a time when our daughter would spit out any food she didn't like -- and oftentimes when she did like it but forgot. The bite that is spit out is cleaned up and a new bite of food replaces it. We are now battling talking with food in her mouth. It happens every dinner time. We also spend time correcting slouching, holding her head up on her hands, and so forth. Good manners are important. It goes right along with being able to eat the food placed in front of you. I sincerely hope that my daughter will be exposed to other cultures and how they eat and live, but if she limits her diet to 20 or so food items (which I've seen in far too many children and adults) or doesn't know how to conduct herself at a table, she will pass by beautiful opportunities.
There is a time limit. Generally 30 minutes, but it can be longer. We have struggled with finding a balance to meal time. We want everyone, including our daughter, to be able to talk openly about his or her day at the table. We want dinnertime to be a positive experience and we want it to be something we do more nights than not as our daughter grows up. Right now we generally spend 30-40 minutes eating dinner as a family. There are only 3 of us, but I can imagine a larger family (think of the Duggars!) probably needs more time in order for everyone to share about his or her day. Still there are dinnertimes when our daughter is just not interested in eating; she is literally talking so much that she forgets about the food in front of her! When this happens my husband and I usually finish up long before our daughter is done eating. My husband will set a timer for about 30 minutes and let her know that it's now time for eating and not for talking. Without a timer our daughter has been known to spend up to 2 hours "eating".
The other fact of the matter is that we generally eat at 6:00 p.m. I think it's important to allow food the chance to digest some before going to sleep. And since my daughter's bedtime is at 8:00 p.m. on school nights, this means she needs to be done eating by 7:00 p.m. I think an hour to eat a meal is sufficient. And, really, if she's not done by then, she's probably not that hungry to begin with and I can allow, at that point, to let her be excused without finishing. We are not about cleaning plates, but about offering sufficient, nutritious, and hopefully tasty food.