If there’s one topic which has the potential to worry even the most laid-back parent, I’m pretty sure it’s food. An empty plate and a tummy full of vegetables can leave us feeling pleased and relieved; an untouched plate and a tummy with just a few chips in can make us feel (wrongly) like failures.
One of the biggest reasons that food and mealtimes can feel so loaded is, I feel, because we can have unrealistic expectations around how and what our children should be eating. These unrealistic expectations cause us to worry, and then that worry makes us try to control our child’s eating, resulting in more fussiness and more worry, stress and conflict.
What we can forget amongst all of this worry is that picky eating is actually quite normal. That doesn’t mean every child will be a picky eater, but it does mean that if your toddler or young child is fussy, whilst this can be frustrating, it is not cause for worry in and of itself. Picky eating in young children is thought to have an evolutionary basis, keeping them safe as they wandered around and discouraging them from trying new foods which may be poisonous. Young children are more sensitive to bitter tastes than adult (and again, some children are much more sensitive to this than others) which can present itself in shunning foods such as green vegetables.
We also forget that eating three square meals a day is a fairly recent phenomenon – and that it may not even be the healthiest way to eat. There is more and more thinking now that intermittent fasting is far better for our bodies than a constant flow of three meals a day. Young children will often follow a more erratic pattern of hunger, eating a lot some days and then barely at all the next, or filling up with a huge breakfast and then shunning supper.
That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but that doesn’t make our mealtimes any less stressful. What can I do practically to help my children enjoy food, and remove the conflict from our meals?
- Hand back control over food to our children. Research has shown that the more controlling parents are over food, the “fussier” a child is likely to be. That makes sense, I think – imagine if every time you sat down to eat you were cajoled, bribed, encouraged, and watched over. Now imagine you weren’t able to choose your food or your mealtimes either, and you never knew what you would be served or if you would even like it. How would you feel? Would mealtimes feel appealing, or stressful? Some ways you can give back control to your children include:
- Encouraging them to serve themselves
- Asking them what they would like to eat for their meal (either outright, or as a set of options – this won’t be possible with every meal, but you could trial it for breakfast or lunch)
- Not trying to get them to eat more
- Not trying to get them to eat less
- Not pushing them to eat with cutlery
- Letting them eat when they are hungry, even if this is outside of meal times
- Listening to them and trusting them if they say they are full up, or still hungry
- Relax… There are many issues which affect our children’s relationship with food, but by getting stressed and making a big deal of food (even if we feel like we’re not, children can tell!) we make sure that food becomes loaded with pressure and emotion – and our children feel this, and instinctively push against it, to test how far they can go. It can feel counter intuitive to relax when we have a “fussy” eater, but that is probably going to be one of the most effective things that we can do as parents to reset the balance. Remind yourself that a healthy child is extremely unlikely to starve themselves, and provide a mix of food with each meal that includes some safe bets like bread, pasta, or fruit.
- … even if that means you need to introduce the “boring replacement”. It’s easy to relax when your child has just eaten a hearty, balanced meal. But what if they don’t touch anything? In our home we use what I have come to think of as the “boring replacement”. If Frida doesn’t eat much (or any) supper, I will offer her a bowl of porridge or some warm milk before bed. I don’t think she has ever turned this down. This means I can relax knowing her tummy has something in it, and she isn’t going hungry just because she didn’t fancy what was on offer earlier in the evening. Toast, plain yoghurt, or a banana work well too.
- Observe your child and see when they naturally eat the most. If this is in the morning, you may want to rethink what you serve to ensure a more nutritious meal in the morning, swapping toast for an vegetable and cheese omelette for example.
- Serve small portions… This helps reduce stress around food waste, and can feel like a “win” to a child. They can always have more!
- …and familiarise yourself with what a healthy portion size looks like for a a young child. It’s often much less than you might think – remember, many of us adults overeat.
- Introduce an “unwanted food plate” or bowl. This removes stress from the child as they know that if they don’t like a food they don’t have to eat it, or even have it on their plate, and it also reduces the temptation to throw or drop unwanted food.
- Model the behaviour we would like our children to emulate. It’s all well and good saying you want your children to eat kale whilst eating a pizza, but… One of the easiest ways to encourage our children to eat a variety of food and have good table manners is just to model these things, day in day out, consistently. Granted, it’s not a quick fix, but it’s the best thing you can do both in the short and long-term.
- Make meals a time for connection rather than distraction. I would strongly encourage you not to have meals in front of the TV (this encourages your children to ignore their body’s cues around hunger and satiety) and to have a “no phones at the table” rule for adults. Make mealtimes about meaningful connection with your children, talking about what they are interested in (we try and save adult conversation for after the meal) and you may find that quickly your children are happier to linger a little longer around the table.
- Create a rhythm around your meals. This makes them more predictable for your children, and therefore takes some of the worry and uncertainty away. Chicken every Friday, pasta on Tuesday, oatmeal for breakfast during the week, a candle lit or grace given before each meal, ice cream on a Sunday. Although these rhythms may take a while to become second nature they can be so valuable, especially if your children struggle with food and mealtimes.
- Don’t make the dining table a place of punishment. Forcing children to stay at the table after they say they have finished eating is only going to give them negative associations. Perhaps have a couple of toys or activities they can do in the same room once they have finished if you or other family members are still eating. However, this doesn’t mean you need to let go of boundaries – you can be clear with your children that eating only happens at the table, and if they want to eat more then they need to come and sit back down before the meal is over.
- Repeatedly expose your children to new foods, tastes, and textures. Then try again. Then try again. And then again, all the time joyfully modelling eating it yourself! It may take weeks, months, or even years for your child to willingly eat a certain food – and they may just never like it (I didn’t like beetroot until I was an adult for example, despite repeated exposure, and I still cannot stand the taste of chicory).
- Shop for, cook and prepare food together. Children will often try foods they usually wouldn’t when chopping or cooking (investing in a good knife makes this much more enjoyable for everyone!). Shopping together gives them a sense of ownership too, especially when given meaningful choice “We need apples – any kind. Could you choose five apples please?” “Which colour pepper shall we have? Could you put them in the basket?” “Could you choose some berries please? Raspberries, strawberries, or blueberries, it’s up to you.”
- Consider introducing sensory play. If your child had certain textures they struggle with in food, you could set up some sensory play. This allows your child to experiment with the texture whilst removing any pressure on them to eat it.
- Read books and stories where vegetables and other healthy food feature highly. This familiarises them with various ingredients, and normalises eating healthy foods.
- Grow your own. Even if it’s just a pot of peas on a balcony or some herbs on a window sill, growing your own food is a great way for children to feel curiosity and excitement around new foods. Just remember – there’s no pressure for them to eat it!
- Introduce a snacking tray. If you have a very active child, or one who doesn’t like eating big meals, you could set up a snacking tray / box / shelf in the fridge for them to help themselves to throughout the day. This reassures you that they are still getting adequate nutrition, and allows them control over what and when they eat. You may be surprised at how much they eat in this way!
- Try introducing a low table or a highchair which can sit flush to the dining table. I am a big fan of family mealtimes (even if it’s just you and your little one) shared around a communal table, but some children prefer to eat their snacks or meals at a small table, especially if they are eating with another child. We love the TrippTrapp highchair, and Frida is still using it now as a chair, but some such as the IKEA antilop highchair are really affordable and without the tray can sit flush to the dining table too.
Phew! Hopefully that list has given you some ideas to try out.
I’d like to leave you with one last thought. Something I hear a lot around food and mealtimes is “but I don’t want to create bad habits”. I totally understand that fear; no one wants to raise a child who will only eat plain pasta with their fingers. But I do wonder, living in the western world with high rates of obesity, disordered eating and dieting, if we really have such great habits ourselves. Maybe the best habit we can give to our children is learning that they are the boss of their own body, and that only they get to decide when they eat, if they are full up or hungry, or what goes into their mouth. I also think we can forget sometimes that young children are just that – children. They are not mini-adults, or adults in the making. They have years ahead of them to learn social etiquette, but only a few years to develop a relationship with food that will potentially stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Where can I find out more?
If you enjoyed this post, you can watch a full video of me talking about this topic in my Facebook group A Beautiful Childhood (search in the the group for “rethinking food” and you’ll find the video). I also recommend reading The Gentle Eating Book which covers some of the above in more detail and provides a reassuring look at eating, from birth to teens and beyond (I was gifted a free copy of The Gentle Eating Book but, as I hope you know, I wouldn’t recommend it unless I genuinely felt it had merit!)
This article is part of a mini-series called “The Peaceful Home” where I will be sharing tips help you to increase the ease and joy with which you parent, and reduce the conflict in your home. We’ve already had posts about stepping away from using “no” so much and creating “Yes Spaces” in your home. Next time I’ll be talking about tantrums, so check back soon.
If you want support from other like-minded parents, why not join A Beautiful Childhood? It’s a free Facebook community – a space for us to discuss raising our children and forging for them a childhood that is gentle, slow, and beautiful. Come and join us!