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How to have a family meal time with a fussy eater

Family meal times used to be a daily occurrence. Everyone would sit around the dinner table at the end of the day and eat together, share stories about their day and spend quality time together.

In my article about why I prioritise family mealtimes, I explain the many benefits of eating together.

If you have a fussy eater, family meals may be a nightmare and not the way you want to spend your evenings.

But you have to remember, kids learn to eat by watching their parents eat.

If family mealtimes have fallen by the wayside for you, follow this blueprint for happy family mealtimes.

This is one of the first steps on the journey to having your child enjoy happy healthy mealtimes.

Before dinner

  • Give everyone a 5 minute warning that dinner is imminent.   “We will be eating in 5 minutes”.  You may have already noticed that telling a child who is glued to their device that dinner is nearly ready can lead to world war 3.  A hot tip is to have them doing a different, non-device activity in the lead up to dinner.  Playing outside working up an appetite is perfect, but colouring in or just playing also work better than device time.
  • If your child has any sort of sensory issue, coordination issue or hypermobility, it is good to get them to do some of their activation exercises at this point.  A great one that works for a lot of families it to set up an indoor obstacle course, with cushions, tunnels etc.  If you have a trampoline, it might be a good chance for a quick bounce.
  • Next get your child’s to wash hands.  This is obviously a good thing for hygiene. It is also a good sensory exercise, and can help calm their nervous system before dinner. In the same way that I recommend you change foods at dinner all the time, I also recommend that you change the soap, towels and water temperature for hand washing.  This also give’s your child’s sensory system a little nudge each time they wash their hands.
  • Then, ask your child to sit at the table.  If you know that getting your child anywhere near the table is a struggle, you can have some of their safe foods already sitting at the table.  This will help calm your child down.

During dinner

  • There has to be at least one adult eating with your child. Not just sitting with the child, but eating with the child. Not pretending to eat either. Kids will see right through that old trick!
  • How you serve the food is as important as what you serve.  For fussy kids, it is good to adopt a way of serving food called ‘family style serving’.  That means all the foods go in serving bowls in the middle of the table, and every helps themselves (for younger kids, you may have to help serve them).  Everyone needs to take some food from each serving bowl.  If your child can’t bear to have some of the foods on their plate, you can give them a little side plate to put the food on.  That way the food stays visible to them, but they know they don’t have to eat it.  Here’s the catch……there needs to be one of your child’s ‘safe’ foods in the serving bowl.  So if your child only eats Pringles, chicken nuggets and white pasta, there needs to be one of these foods in the middle of the table for them to eat.  That way your child stays calm, and you know they won’t go to bed hungry.
  • For the next 20-30 minutes, you sit back and enjoy the meal.  Focus more on talking and social interaction, and less on what your child is eating, if anything.  Towards the end of the meal, you can encourage your child to eat a bit more before the meal is over, but never force a child to eat.

After dinner

  • At the end of the meal – everyone helps clean up!  Ask your child to take the uneaten food from their plate and put it in the scraps bin / compost bin.  Touching the food to do this actually is a great exercise in desensitising them to the food.  This also signifies that this mealtime is over and there is no more food

If your child is a fussy eater, there are many steps to take to turn that around.  The whole child needs to be considered – their gut health, nutrient status, neurodevelopment, oral motor skills. 

It is complex. 

Need more help?

No matter what the root cause of their eating issues, having family meal times is a big step in the right direction.  If you would like to have a chat to see if my Fussy Eater program “The Fuss No More Method” might be right for your child, please book a discovery call using this link.

Can Being A Good Role Model Help With Fussy Eating?

Do you have a child who tends to be fussy around food?

The solution may be in setting a good example of a healthy relationship with food.

Fussy eating is a complex issue, with many factors that can contribute.

For younger children, it can be a phase that they grow out of.

But if your child continues to refuse new foods, being a good role model around food can help.

Let’s look at some ways that you can set a good example for your kids when it comes to food.

Eating as a family

As many families have both parents working, it’s not always feasible for everyone to sit down at the table together. I often have mothers that tell me that the kids eat at 5, and then they wait until their husband is home to have dinner because they don’t want him to eat alone.

But it is important for kids to eat with adults to see them model behaviour around food. Otherwise, if your kids are always eating separately, they can’t learn healthy behaviours around food.

This can also help to expose your kids to new foods. Exposure is an important part of integrating new foods, so being able to see and smell what you eat can help them to try new foods.

It doesn’t always have to be dinner that you eat together.

If the family’s evening schedule is all over the place, you can eat breakfast together, or have a family lunch every weekend. You can also ask your parents, carers or babysitters if they can sit and eat something with the kids.

Using positive language around food

If you’re telling your child to eat their veggies but your partner is saying that Brussel sprouts are gross, it’s no surprise that your child refuses them.

The way that adults interact with their food will be mimicked, so you want to be aware of what you say and do when it comes to the foods you’re introducing.

This doesn’t mean that you have to eat foods that you loathe or say you love Brussel sprouts when you hate them. But it does mean that both parents need to avoid disparaging foods that are being introduced.

Having one family meal

A common issue that feeds into picky eating is having two separate dinners – one for adults and one for kids. If we give our kids the bland foods they prefer, they’re not going to be interested in trying something new!

Of course you can still make variations of the same meal. For example, you might enjoy a spicy dish but serve your child’s portion up before adding the chilli. Or you might love some salmon but the kids have hoki with the same rice and vegetables on the side.

Another good option is to have buffet or family style meals where the kids can serve themselves. That way, they are still exposed to all of the elements of the meal, but aren’t pressured into trying it.

Some good options to serve family-style include roast dinners (just pre-cut the roast before serving), Mexican, pasta dishes or nourish bowls.

Stick to a routine

When we were growing up, meals and snacks were at the same time every day. If you didn’t eat enough and got hungry, you just had to wait until the next meal or snack.

But nowadays, having structured meal times has gone out the window. Between parents working late, kids going to sports and hobbies and socialising, eating happens at almost any time of day.

Unfortunately, this has led to many kids slipping into a pattern of constantly grazing throughout the day. Then when dinner time comes, they don’t want to eat their veggies. That’s no surprise as they’ve filled up on muesli bars, biscuits and anything else in the cupboard!

That’s why it’s best to set a routine when it comes to eating, particularly over school holidays. What works best for your family is up to you, but a common one is 3 meals and 3 snacks. If they’ve had their snack and are still saying they are hungry, give them some water instead.

Remember that growing kids may need more food while going through a growth spurt. So the snacks may become mini meals at times! In this case, you want to focus on including fruit, veggies, protein and healthy fats in as many snacks as possible.

Finally, I just want to remind you to keep trying. It takes time for kids to try and incorporate new foods into their regular diet. This can feel like an eternity, particularly if your child has sensory issues or is a problem eater. But the way that you behave around food can make a big difference in your child’s long-term wellbeing.

Do you have a fussy eater at home? Want some tailored strategies to increase the variety of foods they eat?

Book in for a free 20 minute chat so we can have a chat about options for your family.

Why do I prioritise family mealtimes?

Growing up, we always had dinners together.  My parents ran a business from home, so they didn’t have to commute anywhere, they were always around home.

The TV was off, and of course, there was no such thing as a device.

Dinner time is often the one time in the day where the whole family is there and can share a conversation.  I have great memories about the giggles we had at dinner.  And so often, the encylopedia would be pulled off the book case to settle an argument.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect.  I also have memories of having to sit at the table for hours on my own because I wouldn’t finish my dinner!

The evidence is staggering in support of family meal times.  I am going to make some pretty big claims in this article, so I am going to pop some references at the bottom if anyone wants to fact check me.

Children who eat dinner together are twice as likely to get the right amount of fruit and vegetables every day, compared to those who don’t.

There was a study with more than 15,000 children (that’s quite a big study!), between the ages of 9 and 14.  Those who ate dinner together ‘most days’ were 50% more likely to eat 5 serves of fruit and vegetables every day.  They were also a third less likely to eat fried food away from home (like takeaway), and a quarter less likely to drink soft drinks.  The more often the kids ate meals together with their parents, the higher their intake of vitamins and minerals (Gillman et al., 2000).

Children who eat dinner together have better vocabulary and performance at school

How much cheaper is this than paying for a tutor!

Studies show not only that children who eat together as a family will spend more time reading for pleasure and doing homework, but this translates to better school performance.

A study of 5000 teenagers in the US found that the less often teenagers eat together as a family, the lower their grades at school.  This link was particularly strong for the teenage girls.  The researchers also found there was more to this association than just connectedness with their families.  It also has to do with the conversation around the dinner table, and learning skills from their parents (Eisenberg, Olson, Neumark-Sztainer, Story, & Bearinger, 2004).

Children who eat dinner together have less asthma.

Yes, you read that correctly.

As I said, there are some big claims in this post.  This one even surprised me!

86 families were involved in a study that looked at the relationship between family rituals (such as shared meal times) and asthma.  Families that adhered to routines and rituals, had children with less anxiety.  This then translated to lower levels of asthma, due to the lessened anxiety.  Children with anxiety have higher rates of asthma, and asthma can make anxiety worse (Markson & Fiese, 2012).

Children who eat dinner together have better social skills

Children who eat dinner together have higher levels of fitness

Children who eat dinner together drink lower levels of soft drinks

Children who eat dinner together feel better about themselves and have better long term physical and mental health

These were the findings of a Canadian study that looked at children all the way from 5 months to 10 years old.  These researchers felt so compelled by their findings that they recommended governments should run public health campaigns to encourage the return of the family meal (Harbec & Pagani, 2018)

I appreciate that it probably isn’t feasible for most families to eat dinner together every day, but see if there are a few days in the week where this is possible.  Or perhaps parents can adjust their schedules so that breakfast can be eaten together as a family.

The key in all this research though is that parents need to be warm and engaged in the family mealtimes, not stressed and controlling.

Eating dinner together can be a beneficial and positive family experience and you might even be entertained by it, when they can be coaxed into sharing their playground stories with you!

References

Eisenberg, M. E., Olson, R. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & Bearinger, L. H. (2004). Correlations between family meals and psychosocial well-being among adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.158.8.792

Gillman, M. W., Rifas-Shiman, S. L., Frazier, A. L., Rockett, H. R. H., Camargo, J., Field, A. E., … Colditz, G. A. (2000). Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Archives of Family Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1001/archfami.9.3.235

Harbec, M. J., & Pagani, L. S. (2018). Associations between early family meal environment quality and later well-being in school-age children. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. https://doi.org/10.1097/DBP.0000000000000520

Markson, S., & Fiese, B. H. (2012). Family Rituals as a Protective Factor for Children With Asthma. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1093/jpepsy/25.7.471