Want your youngster to come running when tea’s on the table? Making mealtimes enjoyable is easier than you think
MEET THE EXPERT
Dina Rose is a sociologist, feeding expert and author of It’s Not About The Broccoli, itsnotaboutnutrition. com
From the moment your hungry bundle enters the world, a huge amount of your time is taken up with feeding her. If you’re not busy satisfying her appetite, you’re probably thinking about how long it’ll be before you need to! So when the time to wean arrives, you excitedly imagine all the foods she’ll try. But how come she’s throwing her toast on the floor when for weeks she’s been trying to gnaw yours? And what do you mean she doesn’t like broccoli? It’s not exactly the Bisto advert you imagined, is it?
But there is a happy ending to this story. And to get there, all you need to do is remember that meals are a pleasure. “Mealtimes take a huge amount of effort and can be quite tiring,” says Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About The Broccoli. “To help set youngsters up to enjoy the times we eat, and like food as much as we do, we need to lighten the mood and reduce our expectations.” So forget those table manners, and try a new set of dinnertime rules instead.
Wipe the slate clean
“If you expect your child to eat as much as you want her to, to enjoy a new food and to sit still, mealtimes are likely to be stressful because she won’t meet your expectations,” says Dina. “So don’t expect your young child to act like an adult, or even an older child, at the table. Expect her to be hungry and tired. Expect her to need a little extra help getting food onto her spoon, and to manoeuvre the spoon into her mouth. And expect her to drop some along the way. That way, you’ll come to the table prepared to give her the extra support she needs.”
Take her seriously
‘Don’t like it!’ ‘Slimy!’ ‘It’s green!’ If you’ve got a toddler, these will sound all-too familiar. But rather than batting these protestations away, explore them. “If your youngster says something outrageous about the food you’ve served, go with it!” says Dina. “You might think that by changing the subject, she might pop the food in her mouth while you chat about something else. But all that will happen is that you’ll become more frustrated when you realise she still hasn’t had a bite! Indulge what she has to say, however, and talk through her observations, and she’ll feel you’re listening to her and that her points are valid. If she still won’t eat it, fine—chat some more about what it looks or smells like instead. Just as children learn to walk by taking small steps, they learn to eat bit by bit. So think of even a small touch or smell—or even a taste— as a success.”
Eat with others
As soon as you invite someone round for tea, eating stops being a chore. So ask grandma to come round or arrange a playdate at teatime. Let your youngster choose a food to share with her friend and talk about how lovely it is to combine her favourite foods with her favourite friends. This helps mealtimes become just another part of the day where the fun and talk can continue, rather than a necessary task to refuel which has to be completed before she can enjoy herself again. Play games at the table too. “Research shows that children who enjoy mealtimes tend to be less picky,” says Dina, “so lighten the mood, play silly games and have fun with friends as you eat.”
Feed morsels not mountains
“Smaller portions make dinnertime less stressful,” says Dina. “Children don’t need to eat as much as adults think they do— and I mean even smaller portions than you probably think I do! Give her two bites of everything, and have enough left over on the table or on the side that she can ask for more if she likes it. Little ones are more likely to feel happy about eating what is in front of them if it doesn’t look daunting.”
Mix up meals
“Showing your child that different foods can be eaten at different times will begin to give her an open mind about eating,” says Dina. “Try to get your child used to variety by mixing up meals and how and when she eats the things she likes. It’s OK to let her have a pudding in the morning as a snack, for instance, if this is when she decides she’d like it. The key is to set limits on how much of a particular food she can have each day. So if she’s a yoghurt fiend, pop a magnet on the fridge that gets taken down when she’s eaten her pot—but let her choose when that is.”
Share your day
Over dinner, ask your toddler ‘What was a good thing about your day?’. And ask her what a not-so-good-thing was too. Studies show that as soon as children begin to speak, at about 16 to 18 months, they are able to participate in at least some conversation about the past. And even if she can’t talk yet, she can still be part of the conversation with a nod or a giggle. “The family meal is a great time for parents and children to interact,” says Dina, “and it’s fine to have your family time at breakfast, or lunch—whenever it works for you.”
Eat the same stuff
Research reveals that babies and toddlers pay close attention to what is being eaten around them. And they’re learning not just about the food, but picking up on people’s eating habits, and who eats what with whom. Mealtimes are an important factor in her social development and you can show your youngster that she belongs in this group at the table by giving her at least some of the same food as you’re having. Adopt a few favourite finger food meals you can all eat together.
Enjoy your tea too
Finally, take a step back from thinking about how much she’s eating, whether she’s getting the right nutrition or if she’s managing to hold her spoon properly, and simply enjoy your food. Watching you tuck happily into your tea, and hearing you appreciating how great it tastes, works like nothing else in the journey towards happy mealtimes for the both of you!|MB