Part 2 - Creating happy meal environment
A heads up, creating and maintaining a stress free meal environment is a slow process. It can be extremely frustrating at times AND it is also going to be extremely rewarding with each bite of new food, I promise. There is only one rule: consistency!
It's important not to use mealtimes as an opportunity to pressure children into eating new or different foods, or foods that you want them to eat but they are not interested in.
It's important to offer children foods they enjoy eating during mealtime and introduce new foods at other times or as a side. Also, snack time can be a great opportunity to encourage children to try new and different foods without the pressure of eating. During snack time, you can create a fun and relaxed atmosphere by engaging in activities such as playing, touching, and experiencing food. This can help children become more familiar with new foods and increase their willingness to try them in the future.
Offer children small portions of food on their plates. This gives them an opportunity to ask for more if they are still hungry, and puts them in control of their eating. It's important to avoid overwhelming children with large quantities of food, as this can create a sense of pressure and expectation around eating. By offering small portions, children are more likely to eat what is on their plate and feel comfortable asking for more if they are still hungry.
It's important for parents to be mindful of the language they use around food and mealtimes. Using phrases such as "just taste it" or "just take a look" can create a sense of pressure and expectation around eating, which can lead to stress and anxiety for children. Additionally, offering rewards or bribes for eating can create an unhealthy relationship with food and lead to overeating or other negative eating behaviours. Emotional pressure, such as telling children they can't get down from the table until they have eaten a certain amount, can also create stress and anxiety around mealtimes. By avoiding rewards, bribes, and emotional pressure, parents can help their children develop a healthy and positive relationship with food.
It's important for parents to avoid becoming short order cooks, constantly catering to their child's preferences and making separate meals for them. Instead, parents can present their child's preferred food along with other items on the plate, allowing the child to take as much of the preferred food as they want. This approach can help children feel in control of their eating and encourage them to try new foods. By offering a variety of healthy options on the plate, children can experiment with different tastes and textures without feeling pressured or overwhelmed. Additionally, this approach can help parents save time and effort in meal preparation and it is a good way to avoid "a complete refusal to eat anything".
If your child is verbal and experiencing stress or anxiety around mealtimes, it can be helpful to redirect their focus by talking about something completely unrelated to food. This can help to alleviate the pressure and anxiety they may be feeling and make mealtimes a more enjoyable experience. Some conversation topics could include their favourite hobbies or interests, stories about your day, or plans for an upcoming family outing. By shifting the focus away from food and onto something more positive and engaging, children may feel more comfortable and relaxed during mealtimes.
Additionally, it's important to involve them in meal planning and preparation. If they are not verbal yet, it can be a great idea to offer choices by using visuals. By giving them a sense of control and ownership over what they eat, they may be more motivated to try new foods and develop a positive relationship with food. Ask your child what they would like to eat for meals and snacks, and involve them in the grocery shopping. This can be as simple as letting them choose between two different vegetables to include in a meal or having them help mix ingredients together. By involving your child in the process and making mealtimes a collaborative experience, they may be more open to trying new foods. Remember to focus on enjoyment and not pressure, celebrate small victories and progress towards a more beneficial relationship with food.