Getting used to meal times, new foods, strange textures and flavours can be troubling for a child. Equally, spending time preparing food which is left uneaten, desperately cajoling your child into sitting at the table, or into trying at least one bite, can be stressful for a carer.
Feeding off your attention, a child’s anxiety can manifest itself as stubbornness or even aggression; the stage is set for another meal time drama.
Relax. Recent American research suggests that even the pickiest of young eaters are very likely to meet or exceed their recommended energy and dietary intake for their age. So focus instead on giving your child a healthy nutritional environment.
Encourage them to explore new foods and to participate in cooking and grocery shopping.
Food shopping with kids
Let your child choose an item to buy from the supermarket – so long as it’s something they’ve never tried before. When they’re old enough, give them a little money to buy a new food (also a great way of learning numbers and costs). If you’re game, let them find something new for you to try too, and give yourselves a reward for tasting it.
If they're old enough, teach them about shopping as a healthy eater and start using the Placemat Reward Chart.
Cooking with kids
Make meal preparation a time for fun and working together. Let your little one add ingredients to dishes, sprinkle herbs or stir in the milk. Measuring out a teaspoon of liquid is good balancing practice… and adding four teaspoons calls on counting skills, too. Give your child a board and a plastic grater for some cheese or ask them to chop a courgette with a butter knife. If you can cope with the initial spillages, letting them get the family drinks will help develop their coordination.
Younger children will love washing up, tearing up salad or getting messy with some floury dough. If the meal’s a success, celebrate by inviting one of their friends around and cook it again.
Food and kids
Research suggests that the chance of a toddler accepting a new food only increases after we’ve offered it to them more than eight times. If the answer is still ‘no’, try to mask your frustration, mention that it’s a shame because Granny or Daddy loves it, and you think they’re missing out. Make ‘taking a bite of everything on my plate’ or ‘sitting at the table until I’m finished’ categories in your child’s reward scheme and remember positive attention and praise are the best rewards.
If you’re cooking for a picky eater, try not to spend more than ten minutes preparing it. The less time you invest, the less frustrated you’ll feel if it goes, untouched, into the bin.
Try not to keep junk food around the house. That way, when your child does eventually feel hungry, there will only be healthy snacks available. If you want to keep some snacks, try using a Snack Jar to limit intake of these around mealtimes.
Shouting makes it harder all round
There's no denying food can be a stressful issue with some kids, but angry discipline is wrong discipline. It might get the meal eaten that night, but the aftershock will be felt for many mealtimes to come. Everyone gets angry with their kids from time to time, so it's important that you know how to calm down, and that you can teach your children how to deal with their anger, if they're getting cross too.
Take advice on nutritional supplements if you’re particularly concerned, but feel confident that your child’s body will guide them towards the nutrients required. And don’t panic if the only protein you saw them eat today was peanut butter on toast!