Top Tips For Stress-Free Mealtimes
Parents often find it extremely hard to stay calm when faced with fussy-eaters, children ‘yo-yo-ing’ up and down from the table, children getting distracted and eating very slowly, and whining complaints about the food they have lovingly prepared. To parents food and feeding their children represents a show of love, nurturing and commitment. They often have food-related concerns about their children’s weight and about their health. These concerns and frustrations can unfortunately turn mealtimes into stressful and unpleasant events for all concerned.
Changing children’s attitude to food can take a long time so don’t expect immediate results. Persevering really pays off so follow the steps below and find out for yourself.
- Get as much as possible prepared ahead of time so that you can sit with your child(ren) during the meal. Eat together as often as possible. Let them see you enjoy your food.
- Get the children involved in some of the preparation and let them experience for themselves, as well as talking to them about, textures, colour and smells. Have them taste the raw ingredients and discuss their likes and dislikes (without judgement).
- Look at recipe books with them and discuss the different recipes.
- Ideally they should see both parents involved in food preparation and have opportunities to observe others such as relatives and friends preparing and enjoying meals
- Decide what rules you want for the table and write them down (or have them in picture form). These should be positively framed and specific such as ‘Sit with your bottom on the chair;’ ‘Leave toys behind’; ‘Taste food even if you think you won’t like it’; ‘Eat with a fork and spoon/knife’; ‘Keep your plate in front of you; ‘Say please and thank you’ or ‘Ask to get down from the table’. Use a tick-chart or a pasta jar (a jar into which you put tokens such as pasta pieces) to acknowledge them for good behaviour and the rules they are following. Ask your child what the rules are before the meal.
- Praise even the tiniest steps in the right direction: ‘You came and sat down and the four legs of your chair are on the floor’, ‘You didn’t say ‘yuck’, even though this isn’t your favourite food’, ‘you put your fork in a carrot – that’s a brave start!’
- Give quite small portions to start. If it’s a new food the child is trying a pea sized amount will do.
- If you have children who push the vegetables aside then make the vegetables a first-course that either has to be tried or finished (depending on your rules) before the next course comes along.
- If your child doesn’t like a food, don’t criticise but don’t give up. You might need to present it to them quite a number of times before they feel brave enough to try the food or before they decide they actually like it.
- If you feel yourself getting wound up by your child’s behaviour remember they have not yet learnt the behaviour you want from them and walk away for a minute or two or take some deep breaths. Children growing up in the UK rarely suffer from malnutrition. If you are concerned about their vitamin intake give them a multivitamin to reduce your anxiety around food.
- Give a variety of foods during a meal.
- Above all aim to make mealtimes pleasant with some nice background music, lots of praise and interesting conversation or games to take the focus away from negative behaviour.
- Reward good behaviour during mealtimes with a game or story or other non-material, non-food reward immediately afterwards. If you offer sweet things as a reward children will regard these as the treat and other foods as something to be endured rather than something pleasurable in their own right.
If you feel that the atmosphere around meals has become negative change the environment as much as possible at the same time as changing your approach. Maybe change the place your child sits at, get new placemats or dishes or cutlery. Let them know things are going to be different.