What are my three key steps to happy meals?
Stressful mealtimes and fussy eating are two issues that families I see often struggle with. Both are very common and normal when you have toddlers or young children. What can you do about it?
There are many reasons that parents are stressed about mealtimes and their child's fussy eating
- Their child won't eat whats on offer for that meal
- Their child won't eat certain foods (like vegetables)
- Their child won't try new foods
- They are making multiple meals to tailor to different family members
- They find they are feeding their child to get them to eat the meal
- Their child's behaviour at mealtimes is stressful - meltdowns, crying, refusing to come to the table etc.
- Mealtimes take forever - the child eats very slowly.
- Their child will only stay at the table for a very short time then wants to leave.
- Parents are concerned about their child's nutrition/growth if they are refusing certain meals
- They are using bribing/having to play games at mealtimes to get their child to eat certain parts of the meal.
Usually when parents are stressed about mealtimes no one is enjoying mealtimes - including the child/children!! Over time this can make mealtimes and eating something both parents and kids dread.
My three key steps to happy meals that I recommend to all families are
- Routine and structure reassures children that they will be fed - children thrive on routine and this reduces the likelihood of any meltdowns
- Have 3 family friendly meals that YOU enjoy each day (or all the meals that you are at home for)
- Have 2 sit down snacks between meals (morning and afternoon tea)
- This routine allows children to come to the next meal hungry, but not starving - extreme hunger can lead to over eating.
- In between these meals and snacks only have water available - no snacks, no grazing, no sweet drinks or milk.
- Let you child decide how much to eat at each meal/snack - it's their job!
- At meals and snacks sit together and eat with your child/children. This means if one parent is home - that parent eats with the children, if both are home then the family eats together.
- Have television and all screens off - that includes adults phone away - enjoy each other's company.
- Offer the same food to everyone and ideally serve it in the middle of the table - allow bigger kids to serve themselves and help little one's get served.
- Be considerate without catering - ensure that there is at least one food at the table that your child always or sometimes eats - that might be as simple as some slices of bread on a plate, a bowl of rice or pasta, or some slices of cheese.
- If your child is a fussy eater they are more likely to come to the table if there is an empty plate at their spot, rather than being overwhelmed by a full plate.
- Eat with your child - and try and enjoy your own meal/snack. Be good company and take about something other than food and eating.
- Teach your child to behave at the table but allow them to leave when they have had enough to eat. Trying to get your child to stay at the table in the hope they will eat more just ends up stressing everyone out as their behaviour deteriorates. Let your child eat a little or a lot - you can't tell how hungry they are by looking at them.
Pressure is when a grown up tries to make a child eat more or less food and it always backfires!
- If you want your child to eat more - they will eat less
- If you want your child to eat less - they will eat more
- Want them to try certain foods - they will avoid them
- Want them to be neat and tidy - they will make mess
Pressure can seem positive - praying, rewarding, applauding, giving stickers, playing games, going on and on about how great a food is
Pressure can seem negative - restricting amount or types of food, punishing, begging, withholding dessert, force feeding.
Pressure can seem like good parenting
- Insisting on 'just one bite' or 'just try it'
- Warning your child they will go hungry
- Hiding vegetables in other foods
- Making your child eat their vegetables
Ask yourself - why are you doing something with feeding?
Is it to get your child to eat more, less or different food than they do on their own?
If yes - it is pressure
Try these three steps in your house!
If you have already tried these steps, mealtimes are extremely stressful or if your child's fussy eating is concerning you - get in touch with Kathleen for an individual plan and support.
Paediatric & Maternal Dietitian – Healthy Start Nutrition
This website and information on this blog post is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant or intended to replace Dietetic assessment/ management or medical care for a child. It is recommended that you discuss any concerns or questions you might have about your child’s feeding/nutrition with Kathleen individually and develop an individualised plan specifically for your child.
About the author of this blog post
Kathleen Perrone is a Paediatric & Maternal Dietitian with extensive experience working with children and their families – especially around fussy eating, stressful mealtimes, growth concerns and nutritional management of many medical conditions.
Healthy Start Nutrition is a private practice based in Melbourne, Victoria that offers clinic consultations, in-home consultations as well as phone consultations.