Mealtimes can be a time of fun and great company, but can also be very stressful for everyone involved when there are picky eaters at the table. For parents, there is the constant pressure to ensure children are receiving adequate nutrition, which, combined with a child’s need to assert their autonomy can lead to anything but a peaceful meal time.
Try the following tips to help make mealtimes more enjoyable and help avoid the power struggles that can occur.
Establish a regular meal time and snack schedule. Create a consistent mealtime and snack schedule to help ensure your child will be hungry at meal times. This will help regulate a child’s appetite and sets a peaceful rhythm in the home around meals. Avoid snacking and heavy drinks that will fill your child before meals and make them less likely to want to eat. Set time limits on the length of meals (20-25 minutes is typically enough time for a child to finish a meal). Set a timer if you have to (it can be visible to you or both you and the kids) and let them know when the meal will end, the food will also end but don’t hold it over them, just state it as a fact. Minimize distractions at the table such as toys, gadgets and the TV, which will help your child focus on eating.
Sit down and have a meal together as a family. Since kids learn best through modeled behavior, they need to watch you eat and enjoy different foods to learn how to do the same. Through modeling, they learn how to chew, eat different food types and textures and learn how to use utensils. Children also learn about sitting and table routines. For children that have a difficult time staying seated, try using a wiggle cushion to help with fidgeting and sitting for longer periods of time.
Don’t be a short order cook. Serve one meal for the whole family and resist the urge to make another meal if your child refuses what you’ve served. This only encourages picky eating. Try to include at least one food your child likes with each meal and continue to provide a balanced meal, whether the child eats it or not.
Participate in meal planning and cooking. Children are much more inclined to eat things when they help prepare them. Being involved in the cooking and food preparation helps to prepare them for the meal to come and eliminate the element of surprise. Children can feel more in control which is so important. They are also more willing to try new things if they helped assemble it. Letting them get their hands on the foods prior to eating them will increase their chances of putting it in their mouth also because now they have experienced the texture of that food.
Play with Food. Playing with a new food is another way to build familiarity and decrease mealtime anxiety. Try painting with pasta sauce, yogurt or pudding. Draw on the table with whipped cream. Use veggies to make faces on pizza. Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes. While you’re playing, let your child see you taste and enjoy the food. Encourage the child to try giving the food “a kiss” or licking it as you are playing it. Use healthy dips such as yogurt, hummus, ketchup, or low-fat salad dressings to encourage children to eat fruits, vegetables, and meats.
Start Small. Serve smaller portion sizes. By giving smaller amounts on the plate, it makes it seem less daunting for a child to eat. Once your child eats it, give him a food he does like. Then, at subsequent meals, increase the portion of the new food and phase out the follow-up food.
Try, try again. Just because a child refuses a food once, don’t give up. Keep offering new foods and those your child didn’t like before. It can take as many as 13 tastes before a child’s taste buds accept it.
It’s important to remember that your child’s eating habits won’t change overnight! Be patient, and the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating and make mealtimes more enjoyable for the whole family!