Picky eaters can fill you with fear. What’s going to pass the picky-eater test today? Will they eat something? Anything?
When they were young they’d sit quietly in their high chairs exploring tastes, smells and textures. My wife and I would talk to each other or even take care of the washing. We’d melt over how cute they were and food time; it felt like our time to relax and enjoy the little moments.
Then they grew and learned the word ‘no’ and the phrase ‘I don't like it’...
and mealtime started taking a turn for the worse. Yesterday’s strategies weren’t working so we boarded the train of bribery and coercion.
As you can imagine, the train wasn’t a long term solution, so we needed to look for different ways to make mealtimes enjoyable for them, and for us.
Want to know how to farewell the spawn of the devil at the dinner table and bring back your angelic child?
Read on for my 5 top tips to reduce mealtime stress. I hope they help you bring back those little moments of joy.
1. Make mealtime exciting
- Get them involved
Kids love nothing more than playing and connecting with you. Have you noticed they love to play with day to day items around the home and pretend to be adults?
When you involve them in mealtimes - from doing the shopping to helping with food preparation and setting the table, they have a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Doing this creates a time to bond and is excellent for learning and development.
Like us, be prepared to eat some of their creations, tasty or not! It’s about the journey, not the destination.
Bento Prepping Together
- Consider the 5 senses
Remember when you had a baby who would use all 5 senses to experience food?
Your older child might not be mashing bananas with their fingers anymore but it's important to understand food isn't just about taste and texture. Colour, variety and presentation play a huge part.
An easy option to make your creations more appealing could be to include a range of brightly coloured, different textured fruits or vegetables, accompanied by grains, dairy and protein.
Level up your sandwiches with inexpensive cutters (like cookie cutters) to make cars, rainbows, unicorns and other shapes your kids will love.
Be sure to include two 'safe' (favourite) foods on the plate and remember what your child enjoyed out of the new options so you can include them for happy mealtimes in the future.
We love using our Bento Box for healthy, variety-packed lunches even at home. The bento box dividers keep food neatly separated, rainbow sticks (our fun name for veggie sticks) can stand up in the box and the boys can take the lids off themselves - their look of excitement each day, when they peel back the lid, is priceless!
2. Give them a choice!
As kids develop, they learn what they like and it's natural for them to want to make decisions... and assert their authority!
The good news is that as parents we can use this in our favour. I’m not suggesting you let them open the cupboard and go for gold, but the trick is to give choices where either option is a win for everyone.
My favourite is to give them the choice between milk or water and keep the ‘once in a while’ apple juice for exactly that .. once in a while.
You choose the selection of foods, ask them to make a decision and then go with a no-fuss approach. By creating choices with food and giving your children the chance to have a say in what they want, they feel empowered and have a sense of control.
This is great for building their independence and showing them you hear them, and their opinion is valued.
3. Give them space
Just like we don't like to be pressured, neither do our kids. That can be hard to remember when we're in parenting mode.
To keep the pressure off instead of focusing on the…
"Are you eating?"
"Eat more vegetables"
"You liked it yesterday?"
View mealtimes as a time to be together, rather than just a time to be fed.
“The secret sauce is letting go. When you do this, you also take the pressure off yourself.”
Just like us, kids have days where they are ravenous and other days not so much, or days where they ‘feel’ like something.
Avoid the temptation to engage in an argument or push something particular on their plate – bribing with the promise of a sweet treat might create a habit that can be hard to shake.
4. Introduce new foods
Children adjust to new foods more easily when they’re younger, so if you’re making toddler meals be sure to offer a range of tastes and textures.
Providing a wide variety of foods creates a balanced diet... and of course easier meal times for all! This is why bento box lunches work so well. The separate compartments make offering a few different foods easy. Kids love the opportunity to explore and you can create nutritious, cost-effective, home-prepared meals.
Top tips to introduce new foods:
Remember: You control the options they choose between, not which foods they eat.
- Include some of their favourites alongside the food you are introducing.
- Give them the space to experiment without pressure.
- Don’t worry if they don’t eat it the first time. It can take up to twenty exposures to get familiar with new food. Try... then try again.
If you’re making lunches for school-aged children, most schools have healthy eating/waste-free and food allergy standards. State governments also publish programs and guides similar to the NSW Government Caring for Children Manual which contain great age group tips on food and nutrition.
5. Embrace change
If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that change is the only constant.
A post-lockdown confession: one of the simple pleasures in our home was to stock up on the boys' favourite cheese. Like a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk, it wouldn't last long!
Then... they stopped eating it overnight. The same week they started liking cucumber again?!
I’ve learned their like or dislike for food often has more to do with how they are developing than just the taste of something, so I do my best to not judge and go back to basics with the previous four steps.
Conclusion: When mealtimes are going pear-shaped, taking it back to basics with these 5 tips has helped reduce stress in our home:
- Make mealtime exciting
- Give them a choice
- Give them space
- Introduce new food
- Embrace change
Let go of the power struggle at the table and you and the kids will be happier for it
We’re grateful to have a wonderful community who have helped us to learn to trust our kids, support their experience and make mealtimes a harmonious time for our family. Our bento lunch box was created to help your kids engage with food and provide a sense of enjoyment while giving those little tummies everything they need to power through the day.
If Vegemite toast or Weet-Bix becomes a huge morning hit, don’t sweat it. Fed is best.
The most important thing is to stay calm, don’t force anything, give them the space to make their own decisions and keep the environment relaxed and engaging.
If you’ve found this helpful or have any other tips for us, we’d love to hear from you!
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