How to cope with difficult mealtimes

If a child is going through a tricky eating phase, it may well pass after a few months. But while the pattern of being open to new foods, then closing in, then opening up again applies to many children, it doesn’t fit all of them. Some are funny about food from the word go and never really seem to enjoy it. Some start off quite uninterested, then gradually bloom into omnivores. Some never eat very much, some seem to eat an awful lot. They are all different and you have to find a strategy for managing mealtimes in your own family that works for you. However, two principles that doctors, dietitians and experienced parents universally agree on are:

Keep trying

Keep offering the foods that you want them to eat, over and over again. Don’t fall into the: ‘It’s not worth it, they’ll never eat it’ trap. Repetition allows your child to become familiar with the food – even if they don’t eat it. A tiny taste, or just tolerating it on their plate, is a step in the right direction. A child may need to taste a food many times before they build up the confidence they need to actually eat it.

Show the wayBaby and Toddler

Eat the foods you want your child to eat, and let them see you doing so. This won’t necessarily bring instant results. Gently explaining that fish is a scrumptious food that you love may leave them unmoved. However, presenting that food regularly, in various tasty ways, and eating it with evident but understated enjoyment yourself sends the right message: ‘This is good, this is normal, you don’t have to be afraid of this.’

You can’t necessarily stop food-related problems from arising – often, they are linked to your child’s age, temperament, appetite and tastes, none of which you can affect. What’s important is how you deal with issues when they do come up. Things can go either way. Mealtimes can spiral into a state of conflict, distress and misery, or, with great effort and self-control on your part, they can remain calm and pleasant while your child navigates this developmental stage. Here are some thoughts on avoiding conflict and fostering the best possible attitudes to food that you can:

Remain calm

This is hard. I mean really hard, but you’ve got to aim for it. Scolding, shouting, crying, stamping around, ostentatiously throwing food in the bin while you hiss, ‘Why do I bother?’ – in short, any interesting behaviour on your part – is an irresistible bait to your child. They have a powerful, ‘What happens when I push this button?’ urge. But, if nothing happens, they’ll move onto the next thing. Leave the room for a minute if you can, and ask another responsible adult to take over.

Don’t hover over them

Share their meal, eating the same thing yourself, if you possibly can. If you can’t, I’ve come to believe that it is often better not to sit at the table at all, but to do something else nearby and let them get on with it. The worst thing you can do, if you’re having any kind of issues with food, is to sit at the table, not eating anything yourself but staring pointedly at your child’s plate, watching every morsel they eat. Would you enjoy eating in that way?

Don’t bribe, cajole or force them to eat more or less than they want to

It’s counter-productive to do so. If they don’t want to eat any more porridge, stew or apple purée, nothing you can do or say will change that. Either you have a battle on your hands, or they’ll eat it under duress, which creates
negative associations with food and with mealtimes. Let your child choose how much to eat. This enables them to be sensitive to their own appetite.

Recognise when they’ve had enough

Even pre-verbal babies can show you when they’re full: they may turn their head away, push the bowl away, repeatedly spit out food, hold food in the mouth without swallowing it, or make a fuss. Respond to their signals, not your idea of what’s ‘enough’.

Don’t offer endless choice

If your child refuses food, you may feel anxious. Will they last through the night? It’s wise to include some element in a meal that you think they’ll enjoy, but if they reject what’s on offer, you don’t have to rustle up something else. If you always respond by presenting their favourite snacks, they might think they don’t need to try anything new, or eat anything they don’t love, because something familiar and safe will be provided instead. It can be scary to let your child leave the table under-fed, but there will soon be another opportunity for them to eat.

Don’t deceive them
Young boy eating bowl of vegetables in living room smiling

Don’t hide new foods under familiar ones or trick them by putting something new inside a ‘safe’ container, such as a pot that usually contains their favourite yoghurt. It doesn’t foster confidence and could put them off both the new food and the familiar one.

Set a time limit for meals

If they’re going to eat, the chances are they will do it in the first 20 minutes or so. Meals that last longer than 30 minutes are probably going nowhere and everyone will get bored and frustrated.

Don’t make food into a reward

If you say ‘you can’t have a chocolate biscuit until you eat your cauliflower cheese’, you’re implying that the biscuit is special, and the cauliflower is a trial. If the biscuits were on the menu for this particular meal, give them anyway, whether the cauliflower gets eaten or not. Don’t give ‘treats’ such as sweets or cake as rewards for good behaviour; again, you are making those foods seem ultra-desirable.

Take the long view

Right now you may be trying to get a balanced meal into the little tinker, but you’re also doing your best to set them up for a lifetime of good eating, a happy and healthy relationship with food. Pick your battles and look for alternatives. Can you let the broccoli go for now and serve up a fruit salad (which has many of the same nutrients) later?

Grow, shop and cook with them

Getting your children involved in bringing a meal to the table is a good way to make them feel more comfortable with it, more interested in it and more in control of the whole eating thing. It is also generally true that children who’ve been involved with growing or gathering fruit and veg are more likely to try them.

  • Extracted from “River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook”, written by Nikki Duffy, published by Bloomsbury Publishing plc and available from rivercottage.net and amazon.co.uk

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