As I was thinking about my biggest stressors in raising my young ones, I realized that one of the biggest ones was mealtime. The constant struggle of nagging them to try new foods, stay at the table, concerns about whether or not they got enough to eat, and the inability to carry on a peaceful conversation was present every time we sat down as a family to eat. I wondered if other families were also facing this struggle and what they were doing about it.
I called a friend and confessed my struggles and she told me that she felt the same. She was worried about how they only ate chicken nuggets for a week straight, frustrated that they decided one day they didn’t like grapes even though they insisted that it was their favorite fruit just yesterday and so she bought a huge bag that they now refuse to touch.
We did some research together and found that it’s all normal. It’s normal for children to have day-to-day / meal-to-meal appetite changes and we shouldn’t worry about day over day or even week over week nutrition. It’s best to look at it month over month and keep track of height, weight, and developmental milestones. Kids will make up for calories lost when they refuse to eat spaghetti at dinner.
However, aren’t we all eager for tips and tricks to get our children interested in the foods that we prepare? Meals that are healthy and interesting? Let’s explore some different ways that we can empower ourselves to enjoy a time of bonding.
Kids love to have control in all aspects of their life. Let’s give them control! They can choose what fork, plate, seat, or cup that they use. Offer them choices that are acceptable to you. “Do you want the green cup or the blue one?” Want to sit in this chair or that one?”
Change up the venue for mealtime. Do you always eat in the dining room? Lay out a blanket and have an indoor picnic. If the weather is nice, take it outside. Do you always use the same plates? Try putting the veggies in a mug and watch their reaction. Try using chopsticks for a meal that you normally wouldn’t.
Kids will usually be more interested in eating meals that they prepare. Sit down and plan out a meal, get the ingredients, and cook together. Encourage them to taste along the way and plate it the way that they would like. Involve and model conversations that your family would like to hold at the table.
If your family is making something that you know that your children will not be a fan of or maybe something new that they haven’t experienced yet, have something of their favorite on hand. Just ask them to take a thank you bite, offer their preferred and focus on other habits that you would like to engage at the table, like sitting still or conversations.
Motivation is different from bribing. Motivation is something that can be either tangible or immaterial that can be used to incentivise someone to accomplish a goal. Before the demand is placed on eating “this” many items, state the motivation, “after dinner, we can watch a show together” or “we will feel so much better after dinner that we can go and play on our scooter.” Let them know that their favorite bread is almost ready and by the time that they take a thank you bite of each item on their plate, it will be ready. Focus the motivation on what you want to accomplish.
Know what your family goals are at the meal. They can range from just being able to sit at a table for 5 minutes, to trying different foods, to eating more than one bite. Try to focus on one and build up healthy habits for the whole family to accomplish these goals.
Even though mealtime is one of the most stressful moments, it can also be something that can be most easily changed from stress to joy. Take the pressure of yourself and them. Nope, they are not going to starve that night because you asked them to try something different. Nope, you are not a bad parent if you feed them cereal while you munch on the leftover goldfish one night. You are just fine and so are they. Once the pressure is off, you can focus on making it a positive and engaging experience to eat together. Remember to praise them for each and every step that they accomplish.
Before you know it, they will be older and maybe even asking to cook dinner for the family.