Hands up all those stressed out parents who find mealtimes similar to a battle with a ravenous tiger?
Sometimes mealtimes can feel like a battle field to the point you throw up your hands and chuck some chicken nuggets and chips in the oven and call it a day, only wishing your kids had eaten what you’d cooked in the first place?
You’re not alone!
You know what, almost every family struggles with mealtimes at some point in their child’s upbringing, but we can either let it floor us, or we can go with it, and in this blog post I’m going to hit you up with the biggest five tips to get you enjoying your family mealtimes without the (parental and child) meltdowns.
I’m going to ease you into this with some foundational stuff, I’d like this to be liberating, not daunting or judgy. If you’ve done it, its likely I have too. We’re all parents, and we’ve all had to decipher this thing called life with little people.
So here goes.
There is a thing called the Division Of Responsibility, coined by a great woman called Ellen Satter (1).
The term discusses that a parents role is to decide what, when and where a child eats, and the child decides whether they will eat, and how much.
Eek, I know how daunting that sounds. When I first studied this, I was awash with horror!
I thought that if I didn’t make sure my children ate at least some of their food, then I would watch them waste away. And THAT would make me a terrible parent.
I have three sons. Son number one was always a pretty reasonable eater, and we had the time to gently guide him. It wasn’t until son number two that I was thrown into the world of fussy eating, and this is where my journey began.
I realised that an unwell child can actually go quite some time without food. But the thing was, that putting pressure on him and stressing about what was going in his mouth was HORRID. I really became a bit of a nutcase, and mealtime was a nightmare. For everyone.
I would spoon feed, I would bribe, I would fret, and I would stress, and I would get angry (I’d also cry. In private… alot). I was struggling with the result of post natal depression at the time, and the eating thing was just horrendous. Like icing on the proverbial cake. You know?
So here I am, many years on, another son and a whole lot of education later, and I’m here to encourage you, and teach you, how to make mealtimes less stressful, and how to let your children lead the way in their own feeding.
So Tip Number One is to
LET YOUR CHILDREN HELP PREPARE FOOD.
I know this can be stressful, and there are days you just need to get dinner on the table, but if there is a meal you can afford to slow down a bit on, get your kids to cut/mix/stir whatever you can cope with involving them in.
Investing in some appropriate kids knives has been a winner in our family. My children don’t help me prep every night, but they do help a few times a week, and honestly, it makes an enormous difference to how much they will accept new foods when they have already been exposed to the food through cutting or preparing.
MAKE SURE YOUR CHILDREN ARE SEATED COMFORTABLY.
The chance of food consumption can start even before you've put the food on the table. This may not be something you’ve considered, but seating your kids so they can sit at an approximate 90 degree angle with their feet touching on something solid, can potentially make an eating experience a success. Rig something up yourself, like put a small step stool under a highchair without foot placement, use some textbooks as a booster seat with a cushion for the back, or go all out and buy one of those swanky trip trap type wooden chairs pictured below, which are admittedly the perfect solution.
Either way, just make sure your child is comfortable. and make sure you're comfortable too.
BACK AWAY FROM FORCE FEEDING AND FOOD MANIPULATION
Its time to ease off on the “if you don’t eat all your dinner, you won’t get dessert” (this is a familiar statement from my childhood).
The best way you can conduct your mealtime is with enjoyment, curiosity, and in a relaxed environment. Taking the pressure off your children will open up the opportunity for discovery, experimentation, and most of all, no pressure, which can lead to enjoyment!
Some children respond well to some encouragement ("a few more mouthfuls",or "pick three more things") and like anything, you know your child, but giving them the space to determine their intake gives them the ability to regulate how much they eat depending on their needs, and this is crucial to growing up with the ability to listen to their bodies cues as they get older.
Getting your child to sit at the table until they have eaten a certain food can lead to food aversion and increase stress hormones that decrease hunger, so try and avoid distressing situations like these at mealtimes, and instead read tip number Five!
EAT TOGETHER AS A FAMILY
You don’t have to get your child to eat. Over time, your child will get themselves to eat.
This goes for fussy eaters, for children with sensory disorders and everything in between. But like everything, eating a varied diet is a learnt behaviour. For young children, foreign foods can seem dangerous.
This is where the importance of eating as a family comes in. And I know this isn’t always possible, but getting your very young children to eat with adults whether it is parents or caregivers is important. When children see adults eating new foods, they can comprehend that said foods are not a threat to them.
This is the basis of why very small children want to eat off their mummy’s plate. Because if she is eating that plate of food then it MUST be safe.
Last but not least, ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILDREN TO PLAY WITH THEIR FOOD.
I know, I know. We have been bought up to NOT play with our food. It has been drilled into us over and over again. But, for fussy eaters, like any play based therapy, this could make all the difference to their food experience and pave the way for food exploration. Try playing with your own food, you might find yourself enjoying it!
If this is a struggle, please contact me, this is my area of practice, and I can start you off with some easy play based platforms to build on CLICK HERE.
Extra Tip: BE PREPARED AT THE DINNER TABLE. Have drinks, cutlery, cloths or whatever you need, right there, so you as a parent can actually sit down for more than 20 seconds. Get your partner and your children to make this possible... all hands on deck!