Dinner Time Dramas

Words by: Elaine Halligan
Images: Little Tables: Anytime Breakfasts from Around the World by Vanessa Lewis, Beatnik Publishers

Does your vision of a harmonious family mealtime seem miles from reality? Don’t despair – there are ways to help even the fussiest eaters.

Parents understandably see feeding their children as an act of love, nurture and commitment. This is why a mealtime that descends into complaints, fussiness and a refusal to sit down and simply eat can be especially frustrating. Add in a parent’s natural concern about weight and health, and it’s no wonder that what begins with loving preparations at the kitchen counter can all too easily end up a stressful and fraught affair for everybody.

The issue of what children eat has never been hotter. Public Health England’s announcement that children should be limited to two snacks of no more than 100 calories per day is just the latest example and has brought the subject of mealtimes into sharp focus.

We know that food has a big impact on our children’s behaviour. Breakfast is especially important to enable your child to function optimally at school. And at the end of a school day when that book bag is thrown at your feet, you can guarantee blood sugars are low, so forgetting an after-school snack could result in the most almighty meltdown.

According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists, a third of under-fives develop some sort of food fad (either food refusal or selective eating), which makes it a fairly normal part of development. All foods can be allowed, but some foods may be everyday foods and some are more occasional foods. If we give sugary snacks on a daily basis, children develop sugar cravings, which is a perfect recipe for fraught mealtimes, bad eating habits and poor behaviour.

It’s our job as parents to provide meals and snacks that are healthy and balanced, and mealtimes that are enjoyable, free of pressure and stress for all.

Here are a few ideas to make mealtimes calm:

Eat together
Research tells us how important this is. Try to sit down with your children at mealtimes, even when you are not eating with them.

Prepare together
Try to involve children in the planning and preparation of meals. Let them leaf through recipe books and choose a meal themselves. Involve them in writing the shopping list, loading the trolley, ticking off items as they go, packing, unpacking, washing fruit and vegetables, even cutting them up and putting them in pans. Take them to self-pick farms where they can pick their own fruit. Young children can weigh ingredients, grate cheese, mash potatoes, roll out pastry (reasonably well), and they can tear salad leaves, sprinkle herbs and so on. They can start off by growing cress, and then move on to tomatoes, potatoes and even strawberries in pots. Research shows that when children are involved in sourcing food, they are more likely to try it.

Show them the way
Model enthusiasm for trying new foods, and bear in mind we need to offer new foods at least eight times before they may be accepted. When we try something we might even verbalise our reluctance: “Although I’m not sure about this one, I will try a mouthful to see how it is because I might like it!” Talk about foods you love now that you didn’t like as a child, so that they can see tastes change. Accept that even though your child doesn’t like a food now, he may love it later. Kids have a lot more taste buds than adults, so foods will taste more intense to them. Some children are more sensitive to taste than others, but most children don’t like bitter tastes, which are more common in vegetables.

Ring the changes
Eating in a different venue can sometimes help to encourage fussy eaters to try new things. Have a picnic in the garden or the park. If the weather is bad, make a den in another room or under the table and have the picnic there. Mix up the normal table settings, help them personalise where they sit at the table, either with a special cushion or by adorning their chair with stencils, stickers or ribbons, or make a placemat by laminating an A4 card with a rainbow of foods tick chart.

Little Tables: Anytime Breakfasts from Around the World by Vanessa Lewis, Beatnik Publishers

Be clear about what you want
Decide what rules you want for snack time and the table, and write them down (or have them in picture form). These should be framed positively and specifically, such as: “Sit with your bottom on the chair;” “Leave toys behind;” “Eat with a fork and spoon/knife” and “Ask to get down from the table.” Ask your child what the rules are before the meal. Be clear about what snacks they can have and don’t have less healthy ones around. Given that sugar is the new cocaine, don’t be surprised if your child refuses the fruit or vegetable snack if high-sugar snacks have been the norm.

Let them play
Within reason, let them experiment with real food and water in their toy cooker and help them prepare special feasts for their toy friends. Let them play with real saucepans, ladles and spoons – celebrate kitchen equipment!

Praise them
Use a tick chart or a jar into which you put tokens, such as pasta pieces, to acknowledge your child for good behaviour and the rules they are following. Praise even the tiniest steps in the right direction, such as: “You came and sat down;” “The four legs of your chair are on the floor;” “You didn’t say ‘yuck’ even though this isn’t your favourite food;” “You put your fork in a carrot – that’s a brave start!”

Small steps
Give small portions to start with. If it’s a new food, a pea-sized amount will do.

Keep trying
If your child doesn’t like a food, don’t criticise, nag or scold, but don’t give up either. You might need to present it to them quite a few times before they will try the food or before they decide they actually like it.

Build happy memories
Connect food and mealtimes with happy feelings, rather than laying down the foundations for anxiety around eating in the future.

Elaine Halligan is London Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that enables parents to get the best out of their children. theparentpractice.com