A common problem time for many families is mealtime. Many different people are exerting their own often quite conflicting wills. This can create a power struggle around eating which, in children, can lead to the development of the "picky eater". In rare circumstances picky eating can be the result of an underlying medical problem in the child, but in many more circumstances it is an exaggeration of what is a very normal stage of development.
Here are some advice points to hopefully help your mealtime troubles:
Resist entering into those mealtime battles
This is a slippery slope for us all as parents. You know what is best but your child will not cooperate. It is important to not rely on authoritarian rules about food, it seldom works. Children need to understand what they are eating and why. Allow room for the child to practice their own will within reason. A good rule of thumb is, as the parent, you decide when it is time to eat and what food items will be served. As the child they decide which of those food items served they will eat and how much they will eat.
Boundaries and consequences
Boundaries and consequences should be set by the parent. However it is important that they are age appropriate, reasonable, balanced and healthy. It is also important that the child has an understanding of why these rules or boundaries exist as well as is aware ahead of time of the consequences of breaking these limits.
Try to sit as a family together for mealtime whenever possible. This highlights the importance of set-mealtime practice for the child. It also provides a quality time for family discussion and sharing. It is important that this time remains sacred and undisrupted especially by distractions from electronics and attention stealing activities.
Food preparation participation
Involving children in the preparation of meals is a sure way to facilitate better eating. This is true for even young children. Tasks can range from helping set the table to actual food preparation and cooking and should be age appropriate. Child participation should be a positive experience for the child and free from coercion.
Positive reinforcement and appropriate timing
A problem with entering into a power struggle at mealtime is it often focuses only on the negatives, that is what the child is not eating or doing. For example, not sitting quietly to eat. A switch to a focus on the positives can make the world of difference. Emphasis on the positive behaviors a child displays at the meal table is highly effective. Children, even those branded as picky eaters, often are eating enough to meet nutritional requirements. Timing the introduction of new foods is cruicial. For example a child's growth spurt offers a natural opportunity to succeed in the child trying a new food item.
The focus of Mealtime
Perhaps not intuitive is that discussions about a child's eating habits should be held at times other than mealtimes. This lowers the stress and anxiety around eating and also limits argument. Choosing another quiet time with your child to discuss food choices, planning future meals, rules, boundaries and consequences is much more effective. Mealtime should be just about the meal.
Acknowledge a level of picky eating is normal
Toddler-to-early grader picky eating is beyond common, it is normal. It involves the natural development of taste sensation, experimentation and the demonstration of personal will. Some authorities suggest we should challenge the term "picky eater" and replace it with "limited eater".
Bribery can be detrimental and even if successful, the lesson behind that food tasting experience is on shaky ground and may result in further undesirable behavior. Eating and the introduction of new and healthy foods is an opportunity to teach children about their own health and taking care of themselves and that, in itself, is the reward.
The balance of snacking
Over-snacking may be the route cause, or at least a major contributor to poor eating at mealtime. Even if the snacks you offer between meals are healthy, children may be full by mealtime and therefore aren't willing to try the amazing new food you have prepared. In-between mealtime snacks should be just that, snacks.
Leading by example is highly effective in parenting a child and eating is no exception. If your child sees you eat at the meal table, undistracted, focused on the task at hand and enjoying a healthy balanced meal including many different food items and groups, they are more likely to give it a try. Unfortunately the opposite is also true. No modelling at all can lead to a child who has no knowledge of boundaries and what is acceptable eating practice as well as poor choices when it comes to food consumption.
Time is everything
It is important to remember that most children grow out of limited eating. One just has to ask one's own parent how they were as a child to discover how much they may have in fact changed. This is why it is important not to confound the "problem" by creating anxiety around eating. Much research exists suggesting links with anxiety around eating with later development of disordered eating and unsafe dieting practices. Acknowledge what is natural and that time is a powerful parent tool.
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