Making mealtimes a joy

How many times have you heard friends say this?

  • My child is a fussy eater!
  • My son is so picky!
  • She won’t eat anything I make!
  • He won’t even touch the food!

As the mother of two young children, I can agree with you that it is heart-breaking when you have worked hard to prepare a dinner for the family only for your child to tell you it “looks yucky” or he doesn’t like it (despite not even having touched the food). I can also tell you that our mealtimes aren’t always smooth sailing and most of the time they are very messy.

When we typically think of mealtimes we think of two things – chew and swallow. But it is so much more than this. Mealtimes are about eating but they are also about family time. We also know that children learn to eat by eating with their adults. 

When working with families and children it is important to think about what the long term goal is. Often parents will say “I want my child to grow up being able to have a good relationship with food”. 

We work with children to develop their eating skills in a responsive manner. We want children to be internally motivated to eat. Not eating because we have asked them to or because they are getting a sticker on the chart. 

Eating is tricky and there are a lot of reasons why little people have difficulty learning to eat. A qualified health professional can help you understand this for your little person. Some key things to keep in mind are:

  • It is not the parent’s fault if their child is a fussy eater and it does not make you a “bad” parent. 
  • It’s ok if your child says “No!” respect this. As a parent you decide when, where and what you eat. Your child decides if and how much they eat (Satter, 2000).
  • Most children want to please their parents and when they can they will do their best.

Eating is a whole body sensory experience. Let’s have a think about what we experience when we eat:

  • Sight – what does the food look like
  • Sound – what does it sound like when we are chewing the food
  • Touch – what does the food feel like in our mouth? How does this feeling change as we chew?
  • Taste – is the flavour strong? Do we need more flavour? Is it too sour?
  • Smell – does it smell nice? How does the smell change as we chew?

And last but not least – how does it feel when it has been swallowed? How does it feel moving down our oesophagus?

There are several techniques you can use to increase the range of foods your child eats. Some of them are:

  • Expose your child to foods of a suitable texture and consistency for them
  • Have a solid mealtime routine (with a suitable chair for them to sit on, at a dining table, with you and the family eating at the same time).
  • Let your child interact with the food as they want – to start, you can have the food in the room (if that’s what they will tolerate) and slowly over time bring the food closer to them.
  • Model to your child what mealtimes should be like (for example, using cutlery, tasting food, good sized mouthfuls, eating a range of foods).
  • Always provide your child with the option of safe foods (these are foods that your child does eat so you know they will have some participation in the mealtime experience).
  • Provide opportunities for a range of food textures, tastes, temperatures and smells to be explored
  • Offer the food to your child at least 10-20 times (sometimes even more).

Above all, make sure your child feels safe during mealtimes. Make sure they do not feel pressured to eat, that they see you eating the same foods and that they control their body and what they do with it.

Are you finding mealtimes stressful? Are you wanting to increase the range of foods your child will tolerate? Contact us to get started. We can work together to get your mealtimes back on track.

Satter, E. (2000). Child of Mine: Feeding with love and good sense. Bull Publishing Company.

I also want to thank my wonderful friend, Rene Fraser (Occupational Therapist) for reviewing this blog for me. Rene is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to children and mealtimes and often my go to person when I feel stumped.