It’s stressful for you, it’s stressful for them and it’s UNFUN for everyone! Chaotic mealtimes can leave you dreading serving up food for your children, I know! I have endured the nasty mealtime dread with my own children. But I have kept sight of the bigger picture. And I have persisted in taking small and manageable steps to healthy, adventurous eaters.
Generally, mealtimes move away from calm and positive when expectations placed on the child are too high.
The very common scenario going on in homes here, there and everywhere
It might go something like this – “Come on son, you need to eat your broccoli before you can leave the table.” Child’s sensory system is just not up for the different textures and the taste of broccoli and struggles against his own intuition saying ‘don’t do it’. Child pushes it around and avoids bringing it to his mouth. Stress grows in his belly. “If you don’t eat your broccoli, you’ll miss out on your icecream”. Child desperately wants icecream and would even be happy to be able to eat the broccoli just to impress his parents and gain their approval…but child really struggles. “Come on!!!! Hurry up!! Why can’t you eat it like your sister can?”. Parent understandably gets frustrated and impatient not knowing why their child won’t just pick up the broccoli and get it over with. Child now has a yuck feeling in the pit of their stomach from the anger and tone coming from their parent, of whom they need safety from, as a young child. Chaotic mealtime ensues and parent and child end up feeling terrible by the end of it.
Fast forward to the next mealtime with broccoli.. The child’s ‘danger centre’ in their brain has already recorded the previous experience as something to be concerned about. Child sees broccoli and immediately, the child feels that feeling in their stomach and doesn’t feel like eating. But the poor parent doesn’t realise this meal will be even harder to convince their child, as the child is already stressed and just not up for a repeat of the last time.
The child will either attempt the food and frighten their sensory system (think gags or even indigestion as they eat it down quickly) or start with the behaviours in their attempt to honour their intuition saying ‘no, don’t eat it’. But of course, for the tired and exhausted parent, these behaviours are the icing on the cake to their frustration that has already built up…over years!
So how do we change this all around?
Create a magic spell for calm mealtimes!
It goes like this:
- Confront your feelings of frustration and impatience and anger and any other negative emotion that comes up when you think about mealtimes with your child. What are these about? Are they from beliefs that were passed onto you about eating all the food on your plate or you must try every food at least? Are they frustrations from your day and not even related to your child? Or crazily even frustrations that you’ve been holding onto since who knows when, possibly even the crappy mealtimes you went through as a child?
- What if you left these feelings on the next park bench you see? Or toss them up into a tree? Or wash them down the bathtub, after you get out? You can decide to let go of them straight away if that excites you! And it certainly makes this all easier.
- Work out your child’s ‘safe’ foods. Write a list if you need to, so you have as many ideas as possible. By having enough safe foods served at the mealtime, the worry of ‘child going hungry’ is dissolved. Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive when you want your child to move on from (most of) those foods, doesn’t it? (Keep in mind, you will still need to pick a food goal and work on that in a fun and positive manner – more on that another day. But you WILL be moving forward!).
Initially, you will not expect your child to eat ANY new/scary foods, if they are in front of them. Hey, don’t even serve them up if that means you can achieve a calm mealtime quicker!
- Feel into your child. Be with them on this one. They need you there as their number one calm, supportive, unconditionally-loving cheersquad. Be on their side.
- Talk with your partner. Explain the motivation around creating a calm mealtime…no matter what. Test you can explain why you are doing this! Check that your partner can be on board for this too. So far, you’re trusting me and they’ll be trusting you!
- Talk with your children. Before the mealtime, announce that ‘tonight’s dinner is going to be fun and happy’. Depending on their age, you can go into more details ‘I’m leaving my frustration at the door, I won’t make you do anything, Daddy has promised no yelling’ etc etc.
- Talk with siblings. Depending on their age, let them know that you are helping ‘Sammy’ to eat more foods. Explain in your words about helping them to practice being calm and to start with, ‘safe’ foods come out. (If siblings will complain, you may need to plan for them to at least have some of the safe food too – if they must! More on that later).
- Serve the safe foods. You can possibly serve some new/scary foods but be sure to tell your little one that they don’t have to eat it. They can just look or touch if they want to. It can be ideal to serve this food on a plate next to their safe foods.
- Be on your child’s side with what you say ‘it’s sloppy isn’t it?’, ‘you find it hard to chew don’t you. Spit it out if you need to’, ‘goopy and sticky hey? what does your body feel when it sees that?’, ‘why do you think your body/sensory system doesn’t like that food?’.
- Aim for fun and happy times in any way. Play ‘eyespy’, tell some jokes, play peek-a-boo (depending on your childrens’ ages!!), do anything but focus on the negative. Keep any of your expectations that might creep up, in check.
- Celebrate the small successes. ANY successes. Be glad that your child is making any positive step in the right direction – from sitting at the table to examining a new food with their eyes to having a test. But no pressure for any of this. Be over the moon for CALM and TRUSTING! High fives, can cans, break dancing, hoorays are all very welcome here!
- Comment on the wonderful mealtime you’ve just had. ‘Woohoo! I enjoyed eating with you all tonight.’ ‘We didn’t yell!’. ‘No one cried!?’. ‘Wow you even tried it!’.
- Ask your child (depending on age) how they felt. ‘Was that a better mealtime than usual?’. ‘What did you like about it the best?’. ‘Shall we do that again next time?’.
So for the doubters, this is the logic :
- Create calm mealtimes. With each calm mealtime that passes, your child feels SAFE and TRUSTING. The ‘danger centre’ in their brain starts to calm down.
- We change the way we introduce new foods. No pressure, appropriate expectations, just exploring, if need be. And it is fun and relaxed. Your child, feeling safe, becomes more adventurous. (Register to be notified when the next round of the Fussy Eater Parlour opens for a 2 week workshop. You will learn how to pick appropriate food goals and strategies to help your child successfully).
- You get success and everyone is on a HIGH!!!! Your child is motivated by this and so are you.
- You repeat the process as you tick off not only new foods but maybe even just how the foods are served to begin with….
- Your child’s sensory system begins to desensitise to new foods. The snowball happens.
- Your child becomes more and more willing to try new foods. You are more trusting that they will get there, as you see it for yourself. You are happier to take it slow and steady, knowing that you will get there.
- Possibly and probably ‘years’ from now, you will look back and see that it all did happen. It was slow, you were steady and you got the glory of healthy, adventurous eaters and a vibrant family!
So friend, can you see the benefit of making your child feel safe and trusting by look at calm mealtimes first?
Your child will certainly thank you for it!
Hello wonderful friend!
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In love and support