Last week your toddler loved pasta, this week she suddenly doesn’t. Meanwhile you’re worried your primary schooler isn’t getting his five-a-day, and it’s slowly beginning to dawn on you that, far from being sweet, dessert is now a full-on bargaining tool at the dinner table.
In short, how do you fix mealtimes when it all starts to feel like it’s going wrong?
Meals Our Kids Love! talked to Dr Emma Haycraft, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University specialising in parenting at mealtimes. Dr Emma is one of the team behind the Child Feeding Guide website and app (We loved the app – read our Friday Dish review here).
Hi Emma, let’s start by asking what are the most common mistakes we parents make when feeding our children?
Serving inappropriate portion sizes is common. If parents give their child too much food this can result in food being left on their plates because they are full. What then often happens is that parents force or pressure children to eat more of the food on their plate. Doing this repeatedly can have unintended consequences as it can teach children to ignore their internal fullness cues and they then start to overeat. This can then lead to children becoming overweight or even obese.
We recommend the rule of palm as a portion size guide: a palm-sized portion of the main food (e.g. lasagne) and 2 to 3 palm-sized portions of accompanying food (e.g., peas and sweetcorn). It’s better for children of all ages to ask for more food than be forced to eat foods they don’t want to.
I feel like I’ve got into bad habits when it comes to feeding my kids. They are now all at primary school. Is it too late to change?
Definitely not! You can make positive changes to improve eating behaviours at any age. It’s never too late to get children involved in meal preparation for example, help with shopping for foods, or playing games that teach them about healthy eating and nutrition. Learning more about a variety of foods, and why they’re important for us to consume, is a great way to help children to develop healthy habits.
How can I get my child to try new foods?
Repeated offering is the best way to get children to try new foods. It can take children a number of times, sometimes as many as 20, before children learn to trust and like a new food. Research suggests parents and caregivers should keep offering new or disliked foods to their children over a period of weeks or months. It may be effective to gently encourage your child to taste a food or, if they’re really not keen, to just pick it up, lick it, or sniff it. This all helps.
For younger kids, messy play with different foods can also help to make foods more familiar. We created the Exposure Monitor where parents can log how many times a food has been offered and whether it was eaten or refused.
I’m struggling to find meals all my kids will eat and I end up cooking 2- 3 different meals every day. What can I do to get my kids to just eat what I cook?
This is something many parents can relate to. You could start by trying to incorporate elements that each of your children like into one meal or, if your children are old enough to understand this, you could allow them to take turns to choose a meal (from a choice that you give them) and everyone has to eat the same. So on Monday, child A chooses, Tuesday is child B’s turn, etc.
It can take a while for children to learn to like new foods and tastes and many of them get stuck eating the same foods. The best way to get your children to eat more foods is to keep offering them. There will probably be some refusal, but encouraging them to try might produce surprising results! You could have a reward chart where, once the children have eaten (or tasted) five new meals or foods, they can choose a treat (swimming, a small toy, etc). And don’t forget to praise them for trying something new.
But what if my child just refuses to eat what I’ve made and then says he’s hungry half an hour after dinner?
It’s recommended that you stick to making just one meal for the whole family. Children will start to learn that, while there may be some meals they prefer to others, they need to eat the dinner that is served. We all have foods we don’t like, but as long as the meal contains food you know your kids enjoy, then keep offering it. Try not to cave and offer an alternative. If your child is still really hungry later on, having refused the main meal, you could offer them a piece of toast or other small, healthy snack.
I’m worried my kids aren’t eating their recommended five servings of fruit and veg a day. What can I do to make sure they’re eating enough?
There are lots of things you can do to help your children eat their five-a-day. This includes getting children involved in food preparation or cooking, taking children shopping so that they can help choose and buy foods, reading books or singing songs about foods, and there are even computer games which focus on healthy eating. Doing these things as well as offering different, healthy foods to your kids are all effective ways to help them to increase their fruit and vegetable intake (MoKL: Head over to the Child Feeding Guide website for more useful tips on increasing fruit and veg in your child’s diet).
Dessert has started to become a bargaining tool in our house with the kids asking me how many mouthfuls of dinner they have to eat before they can have pudding. Should I stop serving dessert?
Food shouldn’t be used as a reward. It can make the reward food (pudding) even more favoured by children and the other food (main meal) less liked. While using dessert as a bargaining tool may seem to be effective at making children eat their main meal, it may actually be making them like that main meal less, so its use should be avoided.
In order to get your children out of this habit, you could stop serving dessert after every meal for a while. They’ll then start to learn that eating their main meal doesn’t guarantee them any pudding. Yoghurt or fruit are healthy pudding options if children are still hungry, but make sure that eating this isn’t conditional on what they eat beforehand.
What you ultimately want to aim for is a situation where children eat as much of their main meal as they want to (until they are full) and then have pudding if they are still hungry, without any food being used as a reward or bargaining tool.
Mealtimes have become stressful to the extent that I feel anxious at this time every day. Is there anything I can do to feel better about it?
If mealtimes have become a battleground, they can easily become stressful. The top tip is to remain objective and try not to let it worry you. Children will go through fussy phases but being clear and consistent in your approach to mealtimes (e.g., preparing one meal for the family and encouraging them to try it) will help children to learn about mealtime behaviours. You can use some of the tools in our Child Feeding Guide to log your feelings about mealtimes – you may well miss small but significant improvements and so tracking your feelings can help you to spot positive changes.
What are the best snacks to feed kids in between meals – or do you think it’s better to stick to three square meals a day?
Children have small stomachs and so three meals and two/three snacks is recommended. There are lots of healthy snacks out there – try to avoid processed foods or ones with added sugar. Houmous and vegetable sticks, natural yoghurt with fresh fruit, and rice cakes are all healthy snacks. Fresh fruit and vegetables are – of course – great, healthy snacks too.
My child has suddenly gone off pasta, which she used to love. Should I force her to eat it or is it just a phase?
It’s most likely just a phase. However, it’s not uncommon for children to go through phases of only eating certain foods. This isn’t a problem for a short while, as long as children are getting the required nutrients from different sources. The key thing is for parents and caregivers not to pressure or force children to eat other foods. If the child is happy eating the other foods and they’re nutritious, then that’s fine. It’s likely to be just a phase that won’t last for too long, and pasta can be offered alongside current favourites, which your child can be gently encouraged to try. Before too long pasta will hopefully be a hit again!
Surely we’re all entitled to not like a certain food. But how can I tell if my child really doesn’t like it or is just being “fussy and difficult”?
Fussy eating is usually just a phase. This means that, while children might refuse to eat certain foods for a while, this is unlikely to last for too long. Keep offering an array of foods, including ones that your child is refusing to eat. If a child has tried something 20 times (you can use the Exposure Monitor to keep track) and still doesn’t like it, give it a rest. They may learn to like it in time. I was 27 before I started to like olives!
If you have a question for Dr Emma, send it to us at contact@mealsourkidslove . Please add “Ask the Expert” to the subject field.