Stressful mealtimes are a common reality for parents of fussy eaters. As parents, we often put so much pressure on ourselves to tick all of the boxes for our children’s needs and this is no exception when it comes to feeding our children. We may have a certain expectation of what and how much we want our child to eat and when this expectation is not met meal after meal it can become distressing for both the parent and the child.
What happens when we our stressed?
When we are stressed, our bodies produce adrenaline, which puts our bodies into the “fight or flight” response. This then signals our adrenal glands to produce the hormone cortisol, high levels of cortisol can reduce your child’s appetite, meaning your child will be less likely to eat.
How can we avoid stress during mealtimes?
When working with families, one of the first things we discuss is what role we can play as parents and this starts with being more compassionate to ourselves and changing our approach towards meals. Instead of focusing on how much food your child is or isn’t eating, focus on making the meal an enjoyable experience for the whole family.
To create a more agreeable mealtime environment I encourage parents to follow the Division of Responsibility. The Division of Responsibility is a feeding model developed by Ellyn Satter which can be used as an effective tool to support children with fussy eating.
Parents often feel it is their responsibility to make sure their child eats. Instead of thinking this, aim to provide opportunities to eat together as a family as often as you can, create structured mealtimes that include 3 meals and 2 snacks per day and let your child decide how much they want to eat.
Read more on how to follow the division of responsibility here.
Look at the mealtime environment.
We can then explore the mealtime environment, is the TV on? Are we distracted by our phones? Is everyone feeling a bit rushed and chaotic from a busy day? Are we yelling at the kids to hurry and get to the table? All of these factors could possibly contribute towards switching on your child’s stress hormone. I always encourage parents to switch the TV off and put phones away during meals and aim to adopt a more relaxed and happier environment.
Have a routine.
Having a predictable routine will help your child feel safe and calm. I recommend aiming for 3 meals and 2 snacks per day and having around 2.5 – 3 hours in-between, where there is no snacking or grazing. Some children would happily graze all day, the issue with this is that we never really allow for the child to become hungry. If your child isn’t hungry, they will be less likely to eat.
Try using the kitchen is closed tool. After each snack/meal is finished, tell your child that the kitchen is now closed. You could make a kitchen is closed sign and let your child put it on the fridge or somewhere in the kitchen. This will give your child a sense of responsibility and encourage compliance, they can be in charge of putting the sign up and taking it down once the kitchen is open or closed.
Try serving family style.
Family style serving is a great way to take some of the expectation (possible stressor) away from your child, have the meal in the middle of the table on large plates or bowls and let your child serve themselves. Always make sure that there is a food available that you know your child will eat, we call this a preferred food. This doesn’t have to be their favourite food but something that you know they like and can fill up on. This will help to keep them calm and start the meal off on a positive tone, it will also get them to the table without resisting.
If your child has no interest in putting a new food on their plate and just sticks with their preferred food, you could suggest putting a little bit on their plate to simply “learn about”. If they don’t feel comfortable having it on their plate, have a small plate or bowl on the placemat and refer to it as the learning plate. Let your child explore the sensory properties of the new food and build confidence around it. This will assist your child to learn about the new food before accepting and trying it.
Create a family ritual for mealtimes.
This is so simple, yet can have such a positive impact on the entire meal. Start off the family meal with a ritual, some ideas include:
- Each person tells the family what the favourite part of their day was.
- Have a small pile of questions in the middle of the table and each person has to answer.
- Say a prayer or sing a little song.
- Light a candle to mark the beginning of meal.
Keep in short and simple, this not only creates a positive tone for the meal, it also focuses on family connection.
If meals still continue to be a source of stress for you family, I would recommend you speak to a local healthcare professional who specialises in feeding. Alternatively, you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org for further support.