“When the enjoyment goes out of food, nutrition suffers” – Ellyn Satter
Feeding your child can be stressful, especially with from 5 to 50% of parents describing their children as picky eaters. A huge range in numbers, as the word “picky eating” means something different to each parent, from having preferences towards certain foods to gradually limit their intake down to very few foods.
We know that feeding your child a healthy, balanced diet filled with variety is the best way to set them up for success in terms of their growth and development, as well as developing healthy habits from a young age.
However, even those parents with the best of intentions can face hurdles to feeding their child the way they would like to, facing difficulties with managing complex allergies, sensory difficulties or difficult behaviours.
Here are my 5 top strategies, and they don’t even involve me saying “eat more veggies”! (A rare feat for a dietitian!)
5 strategies to reduce stress at mealtimes
1. Family mealtimes
Sitting down as a family to eat a meal together can be a struggle with our busy lifestyles, with siblings being off at after-school sport or music lessons, and other members of the family working late, it can certainly be a challenge! Even finding that one night a week as a starting point and booking it in as a family meal can be a positive first step.
This is a great opportunity for your child to watch and learn how food is meant to be eaten and also how it can be enjoyed.
This is often why children eat better at daycare or school, is because they are watching their peers eat and are more willing to try new foods or eat more of their own meal.
2. ditch the screens
Once you’ve got the family assembled, it’s time to hit the “off” button on all screens for the duration of the meal.
Why is this important?
It helps to facilitate pleasant family conversations and create a positive mealtime environment, but it also reduces eating with distraction which can lead to a disconnect between both your and your child’s hunger and satiety cues, meaning they may not eat to their appetite.
It is ideal that we try and preserve this in-born inability to self-regulate how much they eat, and keeping the iPad away is a great start. It will also help your child to learn, that eating is not a task to be accomplished, but rather a time of the day to be enjoyed with their family.
3. Serve it up family style
Serve the same meals you’re already serving, but put them on plates, bowls and platters in the middle of the table. If it’s a salad, deconstruct the veggies and let each family member choose the vegetables they would like to add to their salad.
As the parent, you’re still providing a range of nutritious options, however your child will love choosing what goes into their own customisable salad and they may even try something new if they see you or their siblings eating it!
4. let your child decide
From the research, we know that pressure feeding or force feeding can cause dysregulation in appetite and is now being theorised as a contributor to weight gain. It can certainly be difficult to trust your child’s ability to know how hungry they are, but I do encourage you to give it a go!
Children will eat out your pantry one week, and won’t touch anything the next, and they are eating for their needs as they’re growing, as a parent you may find this concerning, fearing about poor growth. However, in general, children will eat to their appetite, on the rare occasions that they do not, seek professional advice.
5. Food Play
It’s not all about the business of eating, children who play and get messy with their food and have fun with it, are more likely to touch, smell, lick and taste a food! Whilst it can be upsetting to see your hard work lying on the kitchen floor, know that it’s part of the parcel of the child feeding journey.
Another tip, is to play games that involve food outside the feeding context that will create more positive exposures to food! For example, for an older child you could play a game of fruit and vegetable hangman, or read books about different foods, or if your child enjoys tactile or “touching” tasks, get them to close their eyes and feel different fruits and vegetables and ask them to guess what it is!
These are all fun, pressure-free ways for your child to become comfortable with new foods and in the long run lead to more of these foods ending up in their tummies!
Bring the joy back into eating and encourage exploration with your child to increase their variety and acceptance of nutritious foods!
If you want additional tips for reducing stress and bringing harmony back to mealtimes or need some assistance in implementing these suggestions please get in touch to find out how a dietitian can assist you.