Are you one of those parents that spends hours in the kitchen, lovingly composing new, interesting and nutritious meals for your wee cherubs; only to find yourself scraping it all into the bin 20 minutes after meal time, with barely a sniff of a carrot had? There is nothing more demoralising, right!? Kids can be tricky at mealtimes, and some more than others! We see all kinds of fussy eaters in our occupational therapy clinic, and there are a few top tips that we have found that can help.
The most essential ingredient when it comes to harmonious mealtimes, is keeping things fun and as stress free as possible. Any hint of pressure or parental crankiness at the dinner table will trigger your child’s internal stress response. This stress causes your child’s body to become flooded with adrenalin, and adrenalin is the ultimate appetite killer. Think about it, the last thing you want to do after a stressful meeting with your boss is eat! This means the more pressure there is to eat, the less hungry your child is going to be. Cranky table antics are a lose lose situation for everyone! Instead of getting all stressed out about what your child is or isn’t eating, a simple change of perspective can help. Meal times are the perfect opportunity to come together and connect as a family. You can chat about the silliest thing that happened in your day, or the funniest thought you had. You can even have a joke about the food that you’re eating “Check out this broccoli! It thinks it’s a tree!” “Oh-oh, this carrot bird is munching on that worm bean”. Keeping it light and fun takes the pressure off everyone.
Another interesting idea around food is to think about the developmental steps to eating. Eating solid foods is not something that we are born doing. It is a skill that is learnt and develops over time. Kay Toomey, a child psychologist and feeding specialist from the Star Institute in the US, suggests that there are six key stages that your child has to go through before the food that you have lovingly prepared can be successfully eaten.
The first developmental stage is ‘tolerates’. Can your child tolerate being in the same room as the food? Are they OK if the food is at the table with them? Can they handle having the food on their own plate? If they struggle to tolerate the food in their immediate proximity, then you have no hope of them actually putting it in their mouth and swallowing it.
The second developmental stage is ‘interacting with’. Will your child poke and prod the food with a fork or spoon? It’s OK to have some fun with this by modelling some food play. Taking some mashed potato on your fork and placing it on a meat ball to create ‘meatball hair’ could be cause for hilarity and might even encourage your child to dig their fork into their mash to make ‘corn cob hair’, for example. Once your child is willingly interacting with food items, they are one step closer to actually eating it.
The third and fourth developmental steps are ‘smelling’ and ‘touching’. Can your child tolerate the smell of the food? Will they use their fingers to explore the texture of the food? As occupational therapists, we like to throw the old adage that “you shouldn’t play with your food” right out the window! Think about how toddlers learn to eat. They explore the texture of foods with their hands before they put it in their mouths, and there’s a very good reason for this. The touch (or tactile) nerves that are on the surface of the hands are exactly the same as those that are in the mouth. By touching and playing with their food, your child is learning whether this food is safe to put in their mouth! Getting messy with food is so important for our preschoolers and especially so if your child is a fussy eater. Messy fingers at the dinner table means your child is another step closer to being a champion eater.
The fifth developmental step in eating is ‘tasting’. Now tasting is different to eating, because it doesn’t require the child to actually swallow the food. It’s OK at this stage for the child to take a quick lick of the food or take a bite and then spit it out, or to chew it once or twice and spit it out. This is an important developmental stage and it means that your child is almost there.
The sixth and final developmental stage is ‘eating’ – hoorah!! At this stage your child might chew and swallow some of the food, but spit some out. Or, they might chew it, swallow it and go back for more.
The important thing when thinking about the developmental steps to eating is to try and meet your child where they are at. If your child is happy to use their spoon to play around with their peas, but would be horrified to touch them with their fingers, then you just need to have lots of fun with the spoon and peas until they’re ready to move on. Let your child set the pace, and just relax and have fun with it.
We do understand that mealtimes can be tricky and stressful though, and if you feel that your family needs a little bit of extra support, then my team at Stepping Stones are available to help. You can find us at www.steppingstonesforchildren.com.au or call 02 49512116. We also offer Skype consults for families outside of Newcastle, NSW Australia.