Back in May, I started pulling together some resources to help parents of “fussy” eaters, or maybe I should just say parents of eaters, as I’ve yet to come across anyone who has never had a struggle or doubt about what to do and say at mealtimes to help build that love of eating healthy foods in our children that we all strive for.
Part one was an interview with mum and cookery school owner, Becky Beasley. Apologies for the delay (life!), but I can finally share with you an interview that I conducted a while back with local mum, blogger and Play Therapist, Kelly Heath, of Parenting Gracefully, to discuss just how we manage those tricky meal times.
RFN: Hi Kelly, lovely to sit and chat with you today, thank you so much for your time. I have a burning question to start you with if that’s ok, and that is – how are mealtimes in your house?!
PG: Well, I’ve got an 8, 6 and 2 year old – I have a fast but fussy eater, an incredibly slow eater, and a toddler! I think our meal times are similar to most other family’s … there’s often at least one person who doesn’t like what’s on the table, someone who’d rather play than eat, and a mum whose trying to remain patient and encourage rather than force everyone to eat!
One thing I have learnt is that the less fuss I make about eating and the more relaxed I am at the table, the more pleasant the meal time. As parents we set the tone for mealtime, and the tone of our home in general actually. Viewing dinner time as an opportunity for family time rather than just a time to eat helps to set that tone.
RFN: Well that’s reassuring, thank you! So particularly looking to support parents with fussy eaters, I know it can be quite challenging to stay calm and not dread that daily battle, or feel the frustration or futility rising. Do you have any tips on what to do for someone that feels like that?
PG: As with most things, preparation, sense of power, and distraction work well with kids!
Chat with your kids about how you (and they!) would like meal times to be, away from the table. Decide on your family’s choices (rather than rules) around mealtime. Doing this away from the table, separate from meal time, means that you’ll help avoid the emotional responses and reactions that you might get when your child is already feeling uneasy and ‘wobbly’ at the dinner table and distracted by the food that they don’t want to eat.
There is very little children really have control over but putting food into their bodies is one thing they can (try to) control and that’s why eating can become a power struggle. So, as much as possible, allowing your child to feel like she has a say or that he can make his own choices helps ease the power struggle.
I make dinner “buffet style” as often as possible, and get the kids involved by helping to set the table and dish up food for themselves. Interestingly, they often dish up more than I would have for them, or if it’s meal that’s not their favourite, they eat what they’ve put on their plate because they feel in control rather than forced to eat. Even when it comes to new recipes that no one wants to try, our family ‘choice’ is that everyone tries it, but they get to choose how much they put on their plate and in their mouth (yes some people might try a pea size amount, but they tried it and I claim that as a win!) So if I’m making something unfamiliar I usually make it as a side along with familiar food or a familiar dish with just a slight twist.
Then there’s good old distraction – making meal time family time – a time to chat, share ideas, share your days highs and lows, and laugh together. Turning the focus away from food and getting your child out of their “feeling brain” and back into their “thinking brain” is key with fussy eaters. So have a conversation topic or table ‘game’ up your sleeve, or have a finger foods style meal and eat with toothpicks – anything that takes the focus off of the eating and puts in on the company you’re sitting with.
I’m not a fan of screens at the dinner table, but an alternative is a children’s story podcast or audio book – it’s a great way of shifting the focus from food, and then can lead into a lovely chat about the story afterwards.
RFN: Brilliant. I loved an idea I saw on your page about having a jar of questions to refer to in those moments when you just can’t think of what to do to steer everybody back to the right place, and as you say, “switch on their thinking brains!”
PG: Yes, I keep a jar filled with topics and questions in the kitchen, so if I’m stuck for ideas we can dip into it and find a prompt to change the conversation: “what’s the best gift you’ve ever received?”, “what is your favourite smell?”, “what was the highlight of this week for you?” or games such as “would you rather…”. These all bring us out of our “feeling brains” into our “thinking brains”, which helps reduce the emotional overwhelm to food.
RFN: Coming back to your comment about choice, I like the idea of giving more choice, but as a nutritionist I am acutely aware that there are certain things I just need my kids to eat. What happens when they “choose” not to have any of them?
PG: When we talk about choice we also need to think about the boundaries around that choice. If you give an open-ended choice (“what would you like to eat?”) you’re likely to get a response that doesn’t work for you. However, you can offer choices with boundaries to help your child feel a sense of control but still ultimately have your child do what is needed, for example “are you going to have one or two spoonfuls of veg?”
There’s the flip side too though – If we think about it, our children probably do have a lot more choice than we did growing up, so much so that it can actually be overwhelming – this isn’t just with food, but also books, toys, clothes, etc. Society just has so much choice these days – we need to find a balance!
As I mentioned it can be helpful to sit down and compose a list of family ‘choices’ to help around mealtimes so that there’s still choice, but also clear expectations and limits to work in. Our family choices, for example are:
- Everyone has the same meal.
- You don’t have to love it to eat it … some things are important to eat because they help keep your body healthy.
- Everyone tries at least a small amount of each thing on the table … because sometimes it takes our bodies 20 tries before it decides it likes a food!
- We choose not to use words like “gross” or “disgusting” or pull faces when talking about our food, but you can say “this is not my favourite” or “this would taste better with some butter/ketchup on it.”
- If you’ve had a good go at eating (had more than half of what you dished up) you can have dessert (which is often Greek yogurt with fruit – not necessarily treaty) if it’s on offer. (If it’s a meal that I know my child really struggles with so long as she has tried at least a few proper mouthfuls, I allow her to have something to fill herself but not something treaty, so for example, a bowl of porridge).
- Once you leave the table, you are finished.
RFN: That’s a great idea, and I completely agree about too much choice being overwhelming – I’m far better at deciding what to cook / eat if I don’t have limitless choices of ingredients and timeframes!
Finally, in summary could you please share your top 3 tips for making mealtimes a pleasant experience?
PG: 1. Focus on connection rather than coercion. Yes, we all want our kids to eat and not ask for food at bedtime, but creating a battle-free zone at mealtime, I feel, is more important than an empty plate. As grown-ups we all have days when we are hungry or less hungry, and meals that we prefer and ones we don’t really like. Our kids are the same. Dinner time generally happens at a busy time of day, but if we can make the mind shift from ‘needing the kids to hurry up and eat’ to ‘this next 45 minutes is our chance to connect’, your mealtime will feel less stressful.
2. Always take time to connect before you disconnect. So if you can’t eat with your child, perhaps you have to take a phone call for example, take two minutes first to really connect with them before you transition yourself out of that situation and into whatever it is you need to do – look them in the eyes, smile, tell them a joke, give them a tickle, play a few rounds of “would you rather…” – they’re more likely to get on with eating than find 23 reasons to call you and need you!
3. Give your kids grace – we all have good days and bad days. And give yourself grace. There is no right answer on “how we should” be or do things. Tune into your child and do what needs to be done for your own sanity and calm.
RFN: Thank you so much Kelly, that’s fantastic advice and ideas! I’m off to make a jar of questions right now!
Kelly can be found on Instagram and Facebook (@parentinggracefully) where she shares simple, practical, doable, daily ways to keep connected, show love, give grace, get messy and rediscover joy as you navigate the journey of parenting. With half term approaching, she’s bound to have lots of great ideas for us to be doing with our children when eating and not eating so if you enjoyed this, please give her a follow! Kelly also offers parent consultations and is contactable at: firstname.lastname@example.org