The first step to removing stress from mealtime is to understand why you are having challenges in the first place.
Face your food demons! What are your triggers? In order to really understand the issue you might need to do a little soul searching. Have you ever noticed that certain things your kids do make your blood boil, it can even change day to day depending on stress levels in the household. If you know your triggers it’s easier to control them and learn to stay calm. For many people reflecting on their own childhood experience can shed some light on what drives reactive behavior. If you were forced to sit at the table and finish all your food you might be more inclined to go the opposite extreme and offer your child tons of choices. When they refuse and are difficult it makes you think, “Do you have any idea how good you have it!”
One of my triggers is when I work really hard to cook something special for Joel and he won’t even take a bite. Especially when it is something delicious like a sweet treat! I have a thing about wasting food, I can’t stand it. So when Joel doesn’t eat something I made him it can be infuriating. It used to make me go a little crazy to the point that I would frantically run after him with a cookie shoving it in his face and imploring him to take a little bite. The more he resisted the more negative thoughts would start running through my head, “Oh great now I’m going to have to give away the whole batch. What a waste.” The more he resisted, the more I would push and the more he would resist. A vicious cycle. Hold on a minute, why am i getting so worked up over a snack. Maybe he’s not hungry right now, maybe his body doesn’t need a cookie. Maybe he has to poop. The more we stress and fret the more kids push back. When we relax and act natural kids have nothing to push against.
It can wear down even the most patient parents when toddlers are being unreasonable and explode over seemingly trivial details. Their tortilla is “broken”, a precious water bottle is in the wash and they have to use a less favorable one. These are all real-life situations. This is just toddlers being toddlers. The reality is that when meal-time rolls around kids are often hungry, tired and / or overwhelmed. Accepting that this demon-like behavior is perfectly normal and probably a cry for help can eliminate some of the parental frustration. The irony is that the more we bend over backwards to “fix” things for a child who is feeling out of control the more chaos it creates. What they actually need is for the adult to take the reins and guide them to safety.
When Joel is especially overtired he can turn into a cranky little monster. Can’t we all? That’s when it’s time to be firm and confident. When he’s acting out at the dinner table our standard line is “You can sit at the table and eat or if you’re too tired to eat it’s time for bed.” We’ve called his bluff before so he knows we mean business – 9 out of 10 times he will sit down and eat. You do not need to be ruthless. You can still hear their pain, be comforting and loving while also ensuring that they understand the rules. Janet Lansbury has a lot of amazing knowledge on this subject. If you haven’t read her book “No Bad Kids” or listened to her podcast “Unruffled” I highly recommend both. Her words and beliefs following the RIE parent method have had a major influence on our parenting style and have helped to vastly reduce the stress levels in our household.
“In truth, our children’s feelings are gifts – precious windows into their minds and hearts — rather than problems for us to fix.” JL
Cut the tension. Your demeanor at mealtimes can have a huge impact on your child’s relationship with food. If you are feeling distracted or rushed your child will pick up on that and use all the tricks in the book to get your attention. Evaluate your attitude and try to stay relaxed even when all your buttons are being pushed.
Many parents have anxiety about how much their child eats for dinner. The fear is that if kids don’t have enough food in their bellies they wont sleep well. Sleep is scared and most parents will do whatever it takes to ensure an uninterrupted night’s rest. Kids are insanely perceptive and will pick up on your emotions. If you feel stressed out about how much your child is eating they will feed on that emotion. They will make crazy demands just to see what they can get away with. When you stay calm and confident they will stop pushing back. Find ways to stay zen during mealtime. Play soothing music, light candles, pour yourself a nice glass of wine. Whatever gets you in a good mood and helps regulate your blood pressure. Instead of viewing the meal as a battle or an important mission to stuff your child full of food, view it as special time together. It takes practice, but I promise it’s possible.
Language matters. What happens when a kid says “But I don’t like blueberries”? Even though they usually eat them regularly and specifically asked for them at the super-market earlier that same day. Cue the rage! It can be incredibly tempting to shout or bribe them to just take a bite. Resist that urge. Think about it, has anyone ever shoved food in your face and insist that you eat it. Yeah, it’s off-putting. Even if it’s something delicious like a piece of cake or a cookie, if it’s new it might be scary or unwelcome in that moment to a young child. Especially if you’re unsure of the smell or what exactly it is.
When a child says they don’t like something try saying “oh you’re not in a (fill in the blank) mood” or “(fill in the blank) is not your favorite” and let it be. This leaves the door open for kids to change their mind the next day or even minutes later. Don’t make a big deal if they don’t want to eat a certain food. The less you fixate the more likely they will be to try when they’re ready. When we make decisions about what kids like and don’t like for them we close the door too soon without giving kids the time to make up their own minds.
Don’t bribe – One of the lessons I learned from the BLW workshop I attended before Joel even started eating was not to bribe. As a child who was raised on bribes, this lesson really stuck with me. How many times have you heard parents say some version of “if you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream.” For most children bribery can be super effective in the short term. The problem is this sets (broccoli) up as the bad guy and paves the way for manipulation. When we tell our kids they have to eat their veggies if they want dessert it sends the message that vegetables are something you have to grit your teeth and bear in order to get treats. They are less likely to have a favorable opinion of the food or eat it voluntarily in future. Better to celebrate all foods. Talk about flavor and textures and help them learn to navigate their taste buds. In her book about potty training, Jamie Glowacki talks about “rewards actually being punishments in disguise” – how true. If your child refuses the bride and doesn’t get the treat you are stuck in a lose-lose situation. This doesn’t mean you can’t have treats, but treats should be pure and special not a bargaining chip.
Don’t bargain – one more bite is a deal breaker. You want to teach your child to know their body and their needs / limits. Encouraging a child to eat when they’re not hungry could lead to obesity down the road. Once a healthy schedule is established you can have confidence that they won’t starve and if they choose to have a lighter meal than usual they’ll learn for next time. Chances are if they don’t want to eat they might not be hungry. If you’ve provided a variety of healthy options trust that they will eat what they need and if not the next meal / snack is just around the corner. Rather than urging kids to take a bite, try to engage them to stay at the table until their are full. Talk to them, make them laugh. When kids are easily distracted it can take some encouragement to keep them at the table long enough for them to fill their belly, make mealtimes fun and you will be surprised at how much more they eat.
Don’t be sneaky – Want to get your kids eating more veggies? Throw them in a frittata. Veggies, especially the green cruciferous kind, are less intimidating when encased in egg. Just don’t be cagey about it. There are countless articles on how to “hide veggies in food” for kids. Muffins made with black beans, smoothies with kale. All of these are great menu options, but make sure you’re being open about what your kids are putting in their mouth. When we make smoothies we always discuss all of the ingredients. Sometimes we play, can you guess the secret ingredient?! If you don’t like the idea of being tricked, don’t do it to your kids. Eventually they will catch on. Concealing ingredients doesn’t build trust or help kids learn about their likes and dislikes.
Try try again. The best way to illustrate this point is with a personal anecdote. Joel eats a varied diet but we don’t keep much dairy in the house. He never took to milk or yogurt. Something about the smell or texture just isn’t for him and that’s just fine with us. But i decided it would be a good idea for him to take a probiotic. I went to the health food store and got the best children’s probiotic I could find. Mark and I take vitamins every morning and Joel always asks for one so i thought he’d be stoked to get his very own vitamin. The first time I presented it he looked at it with disgust. The second time he smelled it and took and tiny bite and threw it away. I was definitely pressing the vitamin thing on him a bit hard for a week or two with no luck. (Bribes, Bargains, Pressure — like I said, a lot our methods come from lessons we learned the hard way) Eventually I gave up on the probiotic. The vitamin bottle sat in our fridge untouched for months. One day he asked for the vitamin i gave it to him and he gobbled it up. Now he requests his vitamin every morning and we have constantly reinforce that it’s only allowed “once a day”. He would happily eat the entire bottle in one sitting. This is one example, but there have been plenty of foods that he refuses to try at first and eventually warms to.
It helps to be super casual about new foods. Consider not even putting new foods on your kids plate. Instead let them watch you eat it a few times and their natural curiosity will probably kick in. Most kids want to experiment with food when given the freedom to explore without our overbearing influence.
Susan B. Roberts, a Tufts University nutritionist and co-author of the book “Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health,” suggested a “rule of 15” — putting a food on the table at least 15 times to see if a child will accept it. Once a food is accepted, parents should use “food bridges,” finding similarly colored or flavored foods to expand the variety of foods a child will eat.
Ultimately kids are looking for attention and connection and sometimes they act out to fill that void. When we sit down at the table and Mark and I start having grown up conversations Joel hates it. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk to each other, but sometimes it’s necessary to give kids a little push to establish some eating momentum. We find that engaging him at his level usually gets him in the eating zone. Figure out what motivates your child and use that to encourage them. Here are some strategies that work for us:
Be playful: Season your meals with laughter. Try to incorporate humor or some whimsy. Anything that makes a child smile will lighten the mood and might engage them into taking some bites. Asking Joel if there are worms in his food always makes him laugh. Bugs are a constant source of comedy in our house. A good poop joke always works too.
Good cop bad cop. He / she’s not going to eat that? If he / she is not going to eat it, can I have it!? Oh yes he / she is!! Oh no, they’re not. If you’re getting smiles or giggles keep going. Eventually they might surprise you and take a bite.
Be a food detective: Very inquisitive kids can have their curiosity peaked by discussing the food in great detail. Have you ever tried to touch a BLACK BEAN!? What do you think it feels like? Have you ever smelled a meatball. What do you think it smells like? Have you ever tasted roasted cauliflower? What do you think it tastes like?
The magic of story-telling: If you want to distract them try telling a story about when they were little or something from your childhood or past. Joel loves hearing the story of how mommy and daddy met “Once upon a time in London on Carnaby Street” or the adventures of imaginary characters and their foodie adventures.
Role play. This is best done outside of meal time with fake food. Reenacting “stressful situations” can help children work through their fear and issues. This can be very therapeutic around food. Try having them pretend “soup” to feed you something “yucky” split it out and say yuck yuck yuck. Ewwww! It’s too yucky for me, did you put worms in that soup? Let them be the chef and feed you something terrible. The role reversal can help provide an emotional release and might reduce stress they are feeling around food.