Moving Mealtimes from TV to Table

In my favourite podcast @planitmum this week we talked about mealtimes tantrums and difficulties getting our little humans to the table to eat!

To target this, we first need to be able to put ourselves in our wee ones shoes. Toddlers attention span is short, think 3-5 minutes for each year of their life. So, sitting at the table for anything longer than 15 minutes if you are a three-year old can feel like an eternity. There can also be many underlying reasons for why a child does not want to come to the table to eat – not hungry, too hungry, too tired, feeling unwell, teething, underlying health issues that make eating certain foods unpleasant and/or painful… the list goes on. So, refusal to come to the table may actually be covering a range of issues and as such we must approach it calmly and consistently with a plan.

There are soooo many benefits to eating at the table, particularly for our picky eaters! They are exposed to foods that they may not be eating (which in turn can help them learn to like these foods!); they engage in the social aspect of mealtime which in turn helps to increase enjoyment and it is incredibly helpful for building structure around meals and snacks. However, it can also be really difficult to get around the table so if the perfect family dinner times aren’t working for you right now. Shed that Mum guilt and know that mealtimes are complex for our little humans! Below are some steps that can support you to gradually move towards more meals at the table!

  1. Routine – children don’t always pick up on the cues that a mealtime is about to start and as a result when asked to come to the table to eat it can feel like a shock. Help prepare them for the start of a mealtime by giving verbal warnings e.g. “tea in 10 minutes, tea in 5 minutes”. Our little ones especially, will be living in the moment! They may not understand that they can come back to their favourite game/drawing after the meal. You can use now/next language to help this. “Now we’re eating dinner, next is story time”. Making things predictable for our kids can help hugely as they know what to expect. Introducing a mealtime ritual can help this e.g. toilet, wash hands, set the table. Involving them in this process by having them set the table, choose music or a song for mealtimes can also help give them a sense of control.
  2. Schedule – children learn to develop appetite through a regular schedule of meals and snacks. The experts recommend a gap of 2.5-3 hours between meals and snacks so that children can build up their appetite in-between. If children are grazing on foods by having lengthy mealtimes or eating between meals and snacks this will affect their ability to be hungry for their next meal which is turn affects their willingness to try new things. Similarly, schedule how long you expect to be at the table for – remember 15 minutes is a long time for a 3-year old so have them sit down at the moment you are serving food so that you don’t waste any precious sitting time with waiting.
  3. Set expectations – using your schedule be clear with you child that “We sit at the table for dinner, if we get down the mealtime is finished and you can eat again at the next meal/snack time”. You are not being mean by doing this if you are setting these expectations in combination with these other strategies and if any underlying health, oral-motor and/or sensory issues have been ruled out as a cause for picky eating. By being calm and consistent in this message you are helping them to learn that meals are at the table and that when they get down the mealtime is finished and the kitchen is closed. More importantly, you are supporting them to regulate their hunger for snacks and meals as they build appetite for the next session. This helps them to learn to eat food when it is offered. You are not being mean and if your child is of a healthy weight and health status you will not be starving them if using these strategies as part of an overall plan. It is likely they will make up for what they have not eaten at subsequent meals/snacks. If these strategies don’t seem to be working there may well be something causing eating to feel unpleasant or painful for you little one that will require the help of a health professional. Help is out there!
  4. Small steps – help to make this new skill easier for you and your little human to learn by focusing on only one mealtime in the day to start. Pick a two-week timeframe where you can focus on this and be consistent. Like learning any new skill you are going to experience some back and forth and testing of the boundaries but by focusing for 2 weeks you give your child time to adjust and you can also reflect back on a weekly basis on what your child eat as oppose to thinking about this meal by meal or day by day. Remember our little ones often have irregular appetites at this age so there can be many reasons why they don’t want to eat at any one specific meal. This is also a strategy for the long-term. You may need to build up from 2 minutes at the table to 4 minutes and so on. There’s no rush, we’re aiming for long-term positive eating habits here not quick wins.
  5. Serve like and love it foods – help your child to feel more comfortable coming to the table by having things on there and/or on their plate that they like! Remember your goal with these strategies is to increase their ability to come to the table. Make it easy for yourself. Their ability to eat the full meal and try new foods is the next step! Remember to combine those like/love it foods with other foods on the table so that they are continually exposed to new foods but with no pressure to eat them!
  6. Buy yourself some time – it’s completely normal for your child to test the boundaries when you begin to implement these strategies e.g. with an “I’m done” as soon as they’ve reached the table. To get over this initial hump distract your child from wanting to leave by engaging them in activity or conversation around the mealtime e.g. ask them to pass you utensils/foods/dishes; ask them questions “Which is harder the broccoli or the carrots?”, “Is the spice on your chicken sweet or spicy?”, “what does x smell like”; engage them in conversation about their day/favourite game/favourite tv character/ what you’re doing tomorrow”. These sorts of questions help to move the conversation from “sit down and take another bite” to a more enjoyable experience for all that is based upon trust that our children are naturally inquisitive about food and if there are no underlying health or pressure based issues they have a natural desire to eat.
  7. Seating – fine motor skills are built upon a solid foundation of core stability. This means that our little ones need to have their body, pelvis and feet supported firmly in a chair to support them to be able to use and develop the finer muscle movements in hands and mouth. If you little one is particularly squirmy then make sure your high chair has foot support, do up the strap and use towels to help secure them in if necessary, For older kids make sure their feet can touch the floor and use a box or phonebook if need be to help them plant their feet!
  8. Ride out the meltdown – it’s highly likely you’re going to face some resistance in this approach as our little ones are built to test the boundaries! If your child has become inconsolable it’s highly unlikely, they will want to eat. Give them a hug/space/time whatever it is that usually helps them to calm down but remain consistent in your approach and expectations. Once they are calm, they can come to the table to eat. If everyone has finished eating by that time then the mealtime is over and they wait until the next snack time. Take a deep breath and move on!

If these steps don’t work for your picky eater do not despair!!! They may simply need a more structured step by step approach and/or have underlying oral motor, health and/or sensory issues that are making mealtimes more challenging than they would be for our average picky eaters.

If you would like further advice on how to utilise this strategy and/or how to access a stepwise, evidence-based plan from a Specialist Mealtime Therapist – get in touch for a free 15 minute consult!

Download the handout below!

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