End Mealtime Mayhem

Do you get frustrated after you make a large family meal and your kids only take two bites? Or maybe you wish that there were some go-to meals that everyone could agree upon. The good news is that taking control of the dinner hour is within your reach! My PhD research is focused on family meals and how parent feeding practices during meals influence what and how much preschoolers eat. While my research findings are still TBD, I am really excited to share with you some of my tips for dealing with picky eaters!

Mealtimes can be hectic, especially dinnertime. The end of the day can be hard for little ones- their mood and energy level play a role, but so does the actual timing of the meals and whether or not you are serving new food. In the many, many parent groups I have led about dealing with picky eaters, and in my research interviewing parents about feeding young children, one thing is for sure- you are not alone! Hectic mealtimes and picky eaters are things that so many families struggle with. Let's start there- you aren't alone in this struggle! 

Here are 3 things to keep in mind about preschoolers' eating habits: 

  1. Children's eating habits can be erratic, and that's okay! The amount children eat will vary each day depending on their appetite, fatigue, activity level and if they are having a growth spurt. It doesn’t always mean they are picky – it is normal. 
  2. Has your child gone through a phase where they only want to eat tomatoes and plain pasta? This is called a 'food jag', and its normal too! My advice- just ride with it. It is very rare for food jags to go on and cause any health problems. Most food jags only last one or two weeks. As a parent, it is important not to short-order cook during these phases as children will learn that if they refuse food, they will get their preferred food (this will cause food jags to last longer). Pair new foods with your child's current favourite foods and continue to offer a variety of foods. These are the best ways to deal with food jags without pressuring your child and increasing mealtime mayhem. 
  3. Developmentally, it is actually quite normal for children to refuse new foods the first time around. Your child doesn't know that the food is safe and won't poison them! It can take 10 or more times for your child to accept a new food. Try and try again. Children watch everything you do, so eating the new food yourself can really help increasing your child's acceptance. 

Here are my favourite tried and tested tips for helping picky eaters and ending mealtime mayhem: 

  1. Make Mealtimes a Routine: Children like routine and are more likely to respond positively if they are expecting nutritious meals and snacks at regular times throughout the day. 
  2. Ensure that your child comes to the table hungry: Schedule mealtimes and snacks at regular times throughout the day and only serve water in between to ensure that your child is hungry at the next meal. Snacks should be spaced at least two hours between meals. Kids may seem picky or may only eat small amounts at meals because they simply aren't hungry. 
  3. Prepare one meal for the family: While I mentioned this above, I wanted to re-highlight this. Consider your child's food preferences, but don't cater to them.
  4. Get your children involved: Involving children in meal prep (grocery shopping, setting the table, cooking) helps peak their interest in the meal and makes them more likely to try new foods. For more age- appropriate tasks that children can help with in the kitchen, check out EatRight Ontario
  5. Limit mealtimes to 30 minutes: That is enough time for a child to finish a meal if she is hungry. Extending a meal does not encourage your child to eat more and will just make for an unhappy meal environment.
  6. Division of Responsibility: It is YOUR job to decide what is served at meal and snack time, when food is served and where food is served. It is your CHILD'S job to decide whether and how much to eat. If your child doesn’t eat, don’t worry he won’t starve. Children will eat when they are hungry even if their favourite foods aren’t in front of them. If a child doesn't eat very much (or anything at all) at a particular meal, they will not go hungry. As long as your child is growing well, a missed meal here and there is okay. If you have questions about your child's growth, visit a registered dietitian in your area
As a parent, you are the expert of your family and you know what will work and what won't. I hope that this post provides you with some helpful tools for your parenting kit! 

I hope these tips are helpful in ending mealtime mayhem and taking the Fight out of Food! 

For my favourite family-friendly recipes, check out a project that has been near and dear to my heart (and stomach!)- The Guelph Family Health Study Cookbook Series

Happy Nutrition Month! 

xo Kath