Mealtimes can be tough for some families. Having a child who refuses to eat many foods offered can be frustrating for parents or anyone trying to help. This may not only have an impact on the diet quality of the child but also on the social life of the whole family. Parents may avoid going out to restaurants or attending gatherings, attempting to minimize the chance of mealtime challenges in a public setting. On top of that, parents may experience guilt or face criticism.
When working in this area, we have to keep in mind that what we do or say around children during mealtime matters. Be calm and reassuring If your child is already not keen on trying new foods, maintaining your cool is going to be more efficient than other tactics, like begging or threatening
1. Helpful strategies
You can take bites of the food that you are offering to the child, tell them that you like the food, or be specific about what exactly you like about the food. For older children, you can even talk about health benefits of a healthy diet, e.g. “fruits have vitamins that boost your immune system”, “beans are full of protein, this helps your muscles”
2. If you are giving instructions
Keep them concise, do not give multiple instructions at once, and give your child time to respond
Unless your child’s behaviour is seriously disruptive, it is better to say nothing. This can be hard but keep in mind that “it is just not worth starting a chain of negative interactions over behaviours that will probably go away if you just ignore them” (Williams and Seiverling, 2018)
4. Be proactive
If your child is playing with items on the table, just remove them from their reach
5. “Catch them being good”
Praise appropriate mealtime behaviours, such as tasting new foods or sitting nicely. This is as important as ignoring behaviours you find highly annoying
6. Have appropriate expectations
According to Dr. William Wilkoff, “picky eating is normal for children up to five years” (Wilkoff, 1998). In any case, it is important to examine the degree of food selectivity and take into consideration its health and social life effects
It takes great patience to work on your child’s struggles during meals. Remember, you are working to improve the quality of your family life, teaching important skills. The reactions to what the child is doing can strengthen some behaviours. This means that changing your actions can change your child’s actions as well.
If your child is presenting with more challenging behaviours, such as gagging, vomiting or throwing foods, or if mealtimes impact the quality of your everyday life, it may be a good idea to seek professional help.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Elena Marinopoulou is a Behaviour Analyst with Willingness Team. She works with children and adults and has a strong interest in parent training, sleep and feeding issues emerging during childhood, as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Williams, K. and Seiverling, L., 2018. Broccoli boot camp. 1st ed. Bethesda: Woodbine House, pp.22-27.Wilkoff, W., 1998. Coping with a picky eater. New York: Fireside.