Part 4: My 5 secrets to successful mealtimes
Welcome to the final instalment of my toddler blog. Today I’m giving you my 5 secrets to creating the foundations for successful toddler mealtimes. These in-fact, form the basics of positive mealtimes for children of all ages and so as your child grows, don’t be afraid to revisit them if you find that you’re battling with them over food.
Ok so here we go…
Step 1. Know your role
As a parent, you probably want to be ‘Super-mum’, to try to do everything right – raising happy healthy kids, managing work, being a good wife etc, etc, etc…. And as a result you may have a tendency to control mealtimes…. This is completely normal! Have you ever heard yourself saying “ just one more bite” or “eat your broccoli and you can have dessert”
Recall the ‘Division of Responsibility’ from week 3. A concept by Ellyn Satter a dietitian from the USA whose techniques have been scientifically proven to work:
- YOUR JOB – To chose and provide the food, how its to be served and when its to be served.
- YOUR CHILDS JOB: - To decide whether to eat it and how much, and in which order to eat it.
Following the Division of Responsibility will undoubtedly remove the stress that many of us feel at mealtimes as it immediately takes the pressure off you as a parent. It means no more negotiating, bribing or asking your child to have ‘just one more forkful’, as your job is done the moment the food is put on the table!
It’s more relaxing for your children too as dinner time is no longer a place where they are going to be pressured or enticed into eating. When the mealtime is a happy place, kids will want to stay at the table for longer and even become tempted to trying new foods.
Step 2 Have a meal plan
Creating a meal and snack plan and pinning it up where the whole family can see, teaches your child to understand when the next eating opportunity is happening. Make it fun, use food pictures, drawings or words and tailor it to your child’s developmental stage. Get your child involved too, if they have a favourite food, make sure you include it in the meal plan and as they get older you can ask them what they would like to see on the meal plan.
A good routine might look like:
7pm Bedtime snack (if needed)
Having a meal plan means not serving food outside of the set times which encourages your child to grow an appetite and an understanding the feelings of hunger and fullness. Research tells us that children who know what to expect and when, are more content, they tend to eat better at the allocated times and are less fussy. It also means you stop saying “no” all the time – how nice would that be!
Step 3 Make one meal for the whole family and serve it ‘family style’
Essentially what this means is that you make one meal for the whole family to eat and that you are not cooking separate dinners for different members of the family. There are three rules to follow here:
1. Make sure there is something in the meal that everyone likes, even if it’s just a side dish. This way your child still feels comfortable at the table and she knows that even though you are not going to cater to her requests, you understand her food likes and dislikes.
2. Deconstruct the meal – serve each part separately – i.e. the plain pasta in one dish, the sauce in a second dish, each vegetable in its own dish. Ok there will be a little more washing up, but your child wont fear ‘contamination’ and will learn to tolerate new foods visually and what they smell like, from a safe place. Remember eating is a skill children have to learn and this means being able to accept food using all 5 senses - taste often being the last one.
3. Let your child serve themselves – ok , with young toddlers this might be you serving them at first, but they should be in control of pointing and choosing which part of the meal they would like and how much. As they get older hold the serving dish but let them use a spoon (or a clean hand if the food isn’t too hot). You’d be amazed how young children are capable of serving themselves appropriate portion sizes, not taking too much and even passing dishes along to the next member of the family.
Research tells us that children who grow up where meals are shared in this way are less likely to gain too much weight, abuse drugs, smoke, and have sex as teens.
Step 4 Be a role model
Always sit down together with your child to eat. If family mealtimes with both parents aren’t possible due to work commitments, sit with your child at the family table and eat with them, saving Daddy’s for later or have a tiny portion of the same meal, saving your main meal to eat later. Children learn by copying from those they are closest to and parental role modelling is a very powerful tool in encouraging a toddler to learn how to eat.
If your child is fussy and you want your child to eat a certain food, you must be prepared to eat it yourself…For example, if you really hate green beans but you want your child to like them, you must always serve just a couple on your plate and make sure your child notices you eating them…just grin and bear it for the sake of learning! Being a positive parental role model will pay off.
Likewise if you or Dad is a fussy eater, your child will learn that behaviour too, so put your shortcomings aside and set a good example, who knows in time you might become less fussy too!
Step 5 Never use pudding as a reward
Using dessert as a reward for finishing their dinner is a guaranteed way of making sweet foods more desirable than anything else on offer….ever! Sweet foods really don’t need any extra help, kids automatically love them as they are born with an abundance of sweet taste buds, while their other taste buds are immature and are still developing.
Dessert should be a standard part of every meal for growing toddlers. Switching up the flavours is a tried and tested technique to get more nutrients into your child when they have had enough dinner. There is a belief that dessert can be unhealthy and leads to obesity but this really depends on what you offer and how you offer it.
Serve dessert with the meal. Put it on the table alongside all the other food. In measured portions, with just enough for everyone, so there is no option for seconds. Therefore your not making a big deal out of it and if your child eats the dessert first – so be it. It’s a small enough portion not to fill them up.
Make fruit, fruit juice jelly, smoothies ice lollies or yoghurt the standard dessert, with more fancy desserts such as cake, ice cream, puddings & custard etc reserved for special occasions.
Try applying my 5 secrets, its essential to give them time to bed-in and make them part of your normal, everyday family routine. Almost all of the families I work with who have come to me because their children are fussy eaters, tend not to have all 5 secrets in place and so this is always my first suggestion for them.
Occasionally I do see children who are extreme fussy eaters (sometimes known as ARFID – avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder) who need extra help and feeding therapy. As an SOS trained feeding therapist I can help there too. Just drop me a line.