Ever felt like The Hunger Games was a title better suited for your family mealtimes than for the popular book series? Try as we might, mealtimes with kids can feel more like war zones than peaceful dining experiences. We use our smartest sleuthing tactics to sneak veggies into the foods they least expect (meatloaf, anyone?). We negotiate deals with our children, promising ice cream if they eat just "one more bite" of that dreaded baby carrot. We plead, persuade, and pressure. The result? Hunger strikes, sneaking food, restaurant tantrums, and frustration for all. What's a parent to do? Is "mindful eating" a thing of the past? Not necessarily. Let's dive into a few ways to make your family meals more peaceful--even with the pickiest of eaters.
Remember Your Roles
As detailed in this post, countless well-meaning parents overstep their bounds, trying to control how much their children eat at every meal. This could look like forcing your child to eat a certain number of celery sticks or saying "no more" when the child says they're still hungry. It's important for parents to remember that their role is to decide when the meal/snack occurs, as well as what is offered at that meal. Your child should be deciding what they eat from the offered options as well as whether or not they want to try them that day. That may feel scary but overstepping here creates loads of unnecessary pressure and distress at meal times.
Remove Pressure From Mealtime
This is a big one, especially if your kid is a picky eater. Many parents pressure their kids to eat fruits and vegetables while restraining their kids from eating richer "fun" foods. While this seems harmless, it communicates to your kids that certain foods are "good" and others are "bad". More than that, kids are learning from a young age to ignore internal cues and rely on external cues (i.e. a parent forcing them to eat their sweet potatoes) to guide their eating. Especially with picky eaters, mandating that they try certain foods will only multiply the negative experiences surrounding foods they already deemed "yucky".
Regularly Offer Variety
You as the parent are responsible for the foods your child is exposed to at a young age. Many parents see that their child doesn't like broccoli initially, and then either never serve it again or force them to eat it at future meals. Rather than battling with your child, try this instead:
- Make sure you yourself are eating the foods you want your children to eat! Show that you enjoy them. Modeling enjoyment of a food is an important part of positive exposure. Even if they don't eat it now, seeing you eat it will demonstrate to them that it is a food others enjoy and increase the likelihood that they'll try it later.
- Offer these foods again, even if your child didn't respond well the first time. It can sometimes take more than 15 exposures to a food before a child will be willing to eat it.
- Serve fruits and vegetables in a variety of forms - cooked, roasted, peeled, etc. Just because your child doesn't jump at a raw cauliflower floret the first time doesn't mean he'll hate cauliflower forever and in all forms.
- Avoid making an entirely separate meal for your child, but try to serve one or two foods at most meals that you know they generally enjoy.
- Offer "fun foods" such as chips or candy as well so as to not demonize them. You can even try serving them along with the meal occasionally to avoid communicating that they are in some way off limits or more special than other foods.
A child should not be made to eat "two more" bites of cauliflower or forced to try all the foods served (this kind of tactic can make them even less likely to try the food, as they think the food must be pretty terrible if you have to put so much effort into convincing them to eat it!) BUT, how they respond to the foods being served is important. Children should be expected to behave in an age-appropriate way at the table. Train your children to say "thank you" for the food, politely say "no, thank you" to foods they don't want to try (rather than throwing a tantrum), to join the family for mealtime, to sit up in their chair, and to engage in conversation.
Solve your child's feeding problems. (n.d.). Retrieved July 5, 2019, from https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/childhood-feeding-problems/