Nurture Article | The Portland Hospital Parenting Magazine
Spring/Summer Issue 2014 | Mealtime Meltdowns
‘Come on, just one more spoonful…you can have pudding if you finish your dinner...but spinach is good for you!’
Sound familiar? If mealtimes have descended into an emotional vortex of bribes, threats and firmly-closed mouths, you’re not alone.
It’s a common scene played out in almost every household at some point. But seeing a child refuse to eat or leave most of what is on their plate - then demand pudding - can be frustrating and stressful, and turn the dinner table into a battleground where the strongest willed ‘wins’.
However, locking horns is never helpful. Children who have developed picky eating habits should be gently encouraged, not forced or coerced.
Ghazala Yousuf, Specialist Paediatric Dietician at The Portland Hospital, says it’s completely normal for children to go through fussy phases. “It’s a way to exert their independence and get attention,” she says.
“The important thing is not to make a big deal about it. Reduce anxiety, make mealtimes pleasant and well-structured, and limit time at the table. Don’t make them sit until they have finished everything, and make sure the portions are not too big.”
Using pudding as a bribe may be a quick fix, she says, but it could be harmful long-term.
“They shouldn’t be looking forward to pudding to make up for eating the “boring” bit,” says Ghazala. “Sweet foods are usually a preference for children. But it’s important to explain that too much isn’t good. Tell them to focus on the vegetables and the meat and the pudding will come, if they like.”
That said, it is just as important not to demonise food groups.
“We must be wary of how we warn children off such foods. It’s not ideal to say things like ‘sweets make you fat’. Educate children instead.” she says.
“Say, ‘Do you know how many spoonfuls of sugar are in that dish, or that can of cola?’ Explain to them that the body needs a variety of foods to grow strong. While sugar gives a quick burst of energy, it has very little nutritional value and will mean you are less hungry for the foods your body really needs.”
Parents can simplify this for younger children, saying: ‘Eating too much cake will mean you have less room for your carrots - and you need carrots to grow big and strong’.
Indeed, it is crucial for parents to lead by example. Demonstrating poor eating can reinforce unhealthy habits - particularly with young girls.
“If the child sees mum picking at a salad, eating sweets or avoiding a main meal, they will learn to do the same,” says Ghazala. “And avoid negative words like ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’ or too much weight loss talk that could impact on their body image. Say you are eating healthily to get more energy instead.”
Make sure distractions are removed too, she advises. “If a child is sitting in front of the television they may continue eating without paying attention to the body’s signs that they are full, which can lead to weight problems.”
Interestingly, the very act of labelling your child ‘fussy’ can perpetuate the problem.
The book French Kids Eat Everything suggests that children are not born picky eaters; it is learned behaviour.
The author, Karen Le Billon, suggests that instead of telling your child he or she is fussy when they don’t enjoy something, try saying: ‘You’ll like this when you’re more grown up’.
If you expect your child to develop a wider palate and you are seen to be trying a wide variety of foods yourself, it will probably happen.
Conversely, brand them fussy early on and it’s something they could carry with them for years, using it as an excuse not to try things.
Indeed, nutritionists suggest it can take up to 10 tries to develop a taste for something. The advice is to keep offering the foods and, with time, they may grow to enjoy it.
What do you do if they refuse to let food pass their lips at all? Ghazala recommends involving them in the meal process from the beginning.
“Take the children shopping, let them see the fruits and vegetables on display,” she says.
“Encourage them to help you prepare the food. If they have had a part in making dinner, they are more likely to try it.”
If a child has opted out of all foods except, for example, plain pasta, try to introduce other foods gradually.
“Don’t take away their favourite food entirely,” says Ghazala. “Add another food alongside so they don’t feel they have lost the one thing that they like.”
If after observing your child over weeks or months a parent is still concerned they are not getting the right nutrition, it’s best to act before anxiety sets in.
“Children can be set back by all sorts of things: texture, new school, the birth of a sibling,” says Ghazala.
“Monitor them for a short period to see how they progress and use positive reinforcement to get them eating.
“If you’re still worried that the child is not putting on weight, that is when to get them checked out.”
TIPS FOR MEALTIMES
Eat around a table and remove distractions.
Limit portion size to a manageable helping and don’t dwell too long.
Offer a variety of foods and encourage children to serve themselves.
Reduce anxiety. Make mealtimes fun, involve the children in the process.
Be consistent. A health drive in January that sees you back to pre-packaged meals in March is an unhealthy approach.
Never force-feed. It’s the worst thing you can do. It can have a rebound effect that means the child will dread mealtimes.
Praise is important. Reward them with encouragement when they eat a good meal.
Completely restricting food groups can make them more attractive. Instead, limit sugary foods and educate your children about healthy choices.
Watch for too many snacks during the day. Breadsticks, raisins, milk - it adds up and could mean your child is not hungry enough for main meals.
By Deborah Arthurs