You might have found this page because you’re wanting to encourage your child’s already healthy development in eating habits and skills - but it may also be that you’re looking for help to figure out why mealtimes have become a battlefield.
This article is for you either way!
We’re going to look at 3 tips and tricks that can help you support your children to enjoy mealtimes.
Before we get started, it’s important to remember that every child is a unique individual and that understanding their unique traits may be really important to help us figure out what might be driving mealtime difficulties.
The tips in this article are general in nature and not intended to replace therapeutic support from a dietitian.
1. Make vegetables fun!
Sometimes we slip into a pattern of bribing kids with delicious treats if they only eat their vegetables. This can mean that we’re accidentally giving kids the (mistaken!) impression that vegetables are the bad guy and the treat (i.e. ice-cream) becomes the knight in shining armour.
Obviously we want to be helping our kids experience their vegetables as fun, delicious, and exciting. Getting kids involved with vegetable selection at the supermarket or green grocer, and with the preparation of their meals, can encourage them to try new and varied vegetables.
If we do want to reward our kids’ exploration of foods, trying using non-food items as rewards. Stickers or extra play time are more effective rewards than other foods.
2. Make food exploration fun!
It can be normal for adults to view eating and mealtimes as serious business - and it is, but it’s also behaviour under development for kids and can be a lot more complex than we ever thought before we had kids.
In fact, did you know that eating involves a 32 step process? I had no idea before I became a dietitian. Trying a food might be a sniff, a lick, or picking a food up to explore it with hands - eating a full serving isn’t necessarily something we can expect, especially for kids going through a phase of fussy eating.
One of the steps in developing eating behaviours is interaction with our food - i.e. getting messy.
When a child engages all 5 of their senses, they can work up that eating ladder consisting of the 32 steps, and that is exactly what is needed for them to feel a food is safe enough to actually put in their mouths.
It can be really tricky to let kids play with their food - I don’t know about you but when I tried to play with my food as a kid, I was told that it wasn’t a toy!
It can be especially tricky for adults who really enjoy, and work really hard, to keep a clean and tidy home to let their kids get messy with food - but it’s such an important part of developing eating skills for children.
When kids are able to touch, feel, and mash foods between their fingers they are actually engaged in the really tricky process of developing those eating skills - so next time you’re tempted to stop your child from ‘playing’ with their food, try to challenge yourself and see where your child’s play leads them.
You may be surprised that more food ends up in their mouths than ever before!
3. Help kids understand mealtime boundaries with regard to alternative foods
Generally speaking the parents I work with all have in common that they want their kids to be happy, healthy - and well behaved!
It can be really hard when parents feel their kids aren’t eating enough to help them be happy and healthy, and sometimes parents might slip into a pattern of offering a more preferred food as an alternative to a meal that their child doesn’t want to try or to eat.
This is really understandable - nobody wants their child to starve or to be so hungry that they don’t sleep or grow well.
When we slip into this pattern of offering up alternative meals, we can accidentally dampen a child’s natural curiosity for new foods or family meals, because if they just wait a little bit they’ll be offered a delicious alternative!
This isn’t what we’ve meant to do at all, and after we’ve accidentally led our kids into this pattern it can feel impossible to get out of.
Rather than offering a totally alternative meal when your child doesn’t like what you’ve served up to the whole family, try to make sure there is at least one desirable and safe food option on your child’s plate with every meal.
This means that there will always be at least one component of the meal that they will be happy to eat, alongside newer or less familiar foods that might need to be explored.
This can remove the anxiety and pressure for you AND for your child - they’re still filling their bellies with something nutritious, and don’t come to expect a whole new food if they just refuse to eat dinner with the family.
You also don’t have to be preparing whole new meals for each member of your family!
If you’ve already fallen into this trap accidentally, don’t worry! You can roll it back from here. Start asking your child what the one safe/desired food option should be on their plate tonight, and then let them know that there will also be other less familiar options for them to explore.
Do you feel like mealtimes are a battleground and you’re not sure how to support your child to enjoy mealtimes again?
You may benefit from the support of one of Hopscotch and Harmony’s dietitians who can support you with a structured approach to food exposure based on your child’s current eating patterns, and to work on your goals from here.
You can use THIS form to request an appointment today.