Make mealtimes about the experience – not just the food!

When we are feeding children it can bring about a great deal of emotion for us.  There is overwhelming joy when your child has eaten something that we have been slaving over for hours to make (there is no feeling like it!). Or sheer disappointment and frustration when they sit and either refuse to eat what you have made – or pick away at it saying “I don’t like it”.  The emotions that we experience when this happens can often lead to irrational responses and a feeling that we want to give up and just stick to pasta and grated cheese for the rest of their lives!  What if we tried to make mealtimes about the experience – not just the food?

Giving your baby choice will help with successful mealtimes

The first thing that we need to do is to recognise that children have very little choice or control over things.  We often tell them what they are going to be doing and when they will be doing it.  For example, when they need to go to bed, when they need to put their toys away, where they need to put the toys, what activity / outing they are going to do next etc. But when it comes to food you can’t actually make your child eat. This is when your child can see that they have some control of the situation and, in many cases, will use it.

Think about how you can encourage more independent choice

When giving a meal to your child look at how many choices you are offering them.  This can start from a very young age when you are offering them finger foods. Can you offer them two options and get your baby to choose which one they would like? This is great for your child’s development and learning.  Choices over everything (not just food!) will come up as they get older. If they have this skill then, as they grow, they will manage making choices so much more effectively.

As your baby gets older, putting food on a plate / bowl in the centre of the table and letting them take from it onto their own plate, will help with choices, but also with self-regulation. Managing how much they have on their plate is a very important life skill which can be learned and developed from a very young age. The child will get to know what feeling full feels like themselves rather than when an adult tells them!  There will be times that they take too much food to put onto their plate, but they need to learn this (and if they don’t take enough) skill too.

Keep mealtimes fresh and interesting

We very often get in the rut of mealtimes being about the eating and it becomes a process.  We prepare the food, put it in front of our children, they do (or don’t eat it) and then we get down from the table and that process of the day is finished.  This can get very boring for you and your child.  So occasionally, why not look at making it a different experience and fun for you all.  Here are some ideas:

  • make a den with the child in the sitting room and have a picnic lunch in the den
  • set the table with a tablecloth, candles and napkins etc and have a ‘grown up dinner’
  • invite some friends or relatives over for lunch or dinner (very often the more social the mealtime is the better your child will eat).

Another way to involve children is to sit down with your toddler or older children and create a menu for the week. This also helps them feel that they have a choice in relation to what they are going to be eating that week.  Then, where possible, try to involve them in the preparation of the meals.

Manage your own expectations about how much your child will eat

When looking at making meals for our children we do need to think about the amount that we are expecting them to eat – very often this can be too much!  Look at the day that you child is going to have before they come home to eat.

For example, are you going swimming during that day?  If you are, then it is very likely that your child is going to need to have a snack once they are out of the pool (I know I always feel really hungry after swimming!). Then a more filling lunch as they will have burned off lots of energy and will need refuelling.  However, if you have a quiet day at home planned, it is likely that your child is not going to be as hungry, so making the meals lighter or more snack-like throughout the day might work better.  As adults we have days when we eat big meals, but other days when we snack all day or just don’t feel like eating so much – this is no different for children so we need to recognise and adjust to this!

Try and make mealtimes more about the experience than the food.

Try to make mealtimes about talking and interacting. Don’t be that person who sits and stares at the child as they eat, dictating what they need to eat next, telling them to hurry up or that they need to make sure that they eat a certain food on the plate.  This is not going to encourage your child to enjoy mealtimes and it is often when the battles start.  Remember that mealtimes are about helping your child to learn life skills for the future and they will become much more of a pleasure!

Claire Burgess is a Family Consultant at Bespoke Family.

Here at doddl we believe in the family mealtime, whatever the shape and size of your family. For more parenting tips and advice, head over to our doddl Parent Hub.

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