It can be tough to make time for family meals… Sometimes family meals start but don’t continue due to time constraints or because it seems that everyone is generally happier without them. This may be partly because dinner is often the trickiest meal, especially for children with picky eating. Usually, dinner is when challenging foods are most often served, and everyone is feeling tired by the end of the day.
Making family meals fun and a time for connection makes it more likely that they will be enjoyed and sustainable. Think about it: how were your meals when you were a kid? Did you eat as a family? What do you remember about the food? Think of what you’d like to keep from your meal experiences as a child and what you’d like to change – including starting to have family meals, if it is something you did not have as a child.
Family meals do not have to be a formal thing and can include just sitting with your child while you have a cup of tea and they have a snack. The most important aspect of eating as a family is being available and modelling mealtime behaviour. Once sitting down, your role is to create and maintain a pleasant environment. Taking away the pressure to eat at family meals can help that internal motivation to try something new to blossom.
Try something new
If mealtimes have historically been a source of anxiety for your family, it can help to change it up. Have a picnic outside or on a mat in the lounge, use new placements or verbally prepare your child for a more pleasant experience to signal that things will be different.
Serving meals family style (like a buffet) is the number one thing parents report defuses battles at the table. Once a child feels in charge of what they have to eat, they will feel less anxious and as a result, have a better appetite! Include at least one food that your child will eat (“safe food”) and condiments with every meal. Avoid “kids-food” and “adult-food” and present all foods the same way.
Accept that offering foods this way will mean that your child will only eat their safe foods for a while. This is a slow and long-term process but one of the most effective, particularly for helping with picky eating! And definitely the most relaxing process.
Some children may need assistance with serving or may be non-verbal. Follow their body language or guidance on what they would or would not like on their plate.
Once you get started on your meal, talk about anything but food. You could talk about your day, ask fantasy questions (“If you could have a superpower, what would it be?”) or discuss what you are grateful for. If this is very new and strange, put everyone at the table at ease by starting off with talking about yourself or something external such as plans for tomorrow.
Come visit us at Therapy Alliance Group if you have any concerns about your child’s nutrition, if your child is a picky eater or your child won’t eat!
(Reference: “Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating” by Rowell, K and McGlothlin, J, 2015).