If there’s any such thing as a universal parenting experience, mealtime meltdowns are it.
Whether it’s a hangry kiddo who’s losing his mind faster than you can get food on the table, a child who absolutely refuses anything with nutritional value or one who suddenly strikes against food she once loved, we’ve all been there. And when you have young kids, mealtimes can be some of the most stressful times of the day.
In my upcoming book, 52 Small Changes for the Family, one major positive change that is huge for most families is fostering a positive relationship with food. Translation? Stop mealtime meltdowns in their tracks.
This is about more than just keeping your sanity intact (though that’s important too!). Research has shown that, due to food’s multifaceted and complicated role in our lives, our relationship with it can have a dramatic ability to enjoy life. Setting your kids up for a positive relationship with food is one of parenting’s most important–and challenging–duties. It’s tempting to want to take over, forcing kids to eat what we think they should eat or using food as rewards. But we really can’t–and shouldn’t–force our children to eat. Learning to feed themselves is an essential life skill, and as parents, our role is to support them and model good behavior, which studies show makes a dramatic impact on our kids’ personal relationship with food.
Ready to make over mealtime? Here are my top tips. And, if you are ready to take a big step towards reducing picky eating and stressful mealtimes, check out my new Stop Picky Eating Online Course and Programs.
Make Mealtimes Positive
If you’re one of the many parents who can feel your blood pressure rising before you even have a chance to sit down at the table, it’s time to create a more positive experience. We’ve got lots more tips around cooking and eating together in the book, but in general, keep discipline out and create rituals around dinner that your family enjoys.
Make Sure There’s Something Yummy Everyone Will Eat
Kids love familiarity, so pairing a familiar, beloved healthy option like your kid’s favorite fruit or raw veggies with dip, alongside a new or less familiar choice, gives the child some control back. It ensures that he has a go-to on his plate and is able to satisfy his hunger as he contemplates trying something new. Give each family member control over how much of each option they take, ensuring they get a healthy meal without causing stress or discomfort. Over time, exposure to new foods will pay off–even if you feel that your child is barely touching them at first.
Eat as a Family
Studies have repeatedly shown that our children are absorbing our attitudes about food. They’re far more likely to try something new if they see us eating it. It’s important to sit down as a family for as many meals as possible, to model the behavior we want to see in our kids.
Empower Your Children
Serve food family style and allow them to plate it themselves, which allows them to take back control and pay attention to their own needs and preferences. Over time, when presented with healthy options, kids will fulfill their needs in terms of fat, protein, veggies, etc. This also means you need to cut back on the pressure on your kids to try new foods, allowing them to make that decision for themselves. (There is research on this, but you probably don’t need it, if you have ever tried to make your kids eat something they didn’t want!)
Share Your Feelings About Food
Take the time to discuss new foods, what you like about them and how you’re feeling in terms of hunger throughout mealtime. This helps kids start to identify their own feelings when it comes to food and can help introduce new foods that they’re avoiding. Try not to ask or pressure your child to try new foods, but rather talk about past experiences of trying something new and your own feelings about the item.
Put Structure Around Mealtime
When you have a kid refusing to eat, it’s tempting make them a separate meal or serve them snacks afterwards. No one wants to feel like their child in hungry! But in reality, that’s self-defeating. Remind your child when he’ll next be offered a meal or snack and keep those times structured, avoiding grazing. A hungry child has a better chance at trying something new or eating what’s offered.
Honor Your Child’s Wishes
If your kiddo is throwing a tantrum about what’s on the table, gently remind her that there is in fact something she likes on the table, and she can eat as much or as little of it as she wants, and nothing of the food she doesn’t like, if that’s her preference. If she’s asking for something specific, tell her that you’ll take it into account on a future meal–and follow through on the promise.
For more details on addressing common mealtime misbehaviors and cultivating a positive relationship with food for your family, check out 52 Small Changes for the Family, available for pre-order now, and my online course Stop Picky Eating with Love, Patience and a Proven Approach!