5 best kept secrets for happy mealtimes with kids

Over the last 22 years or so of working with families (and learning from my own two children), there are recurring themes that crop up over and over that make for happier mealtimes.

In this blog, I’m revealing to you my 5 best kept secrets to creating the foundations for happy mealtimes for you and your family. 

When to implement these 5 secrets?

You can start as soon as your little one joins in with eating family foods, it’s never really too early but I imagine you are here because mealtimes are a battleground and you are looking for help.

So start now. Take it step-by-step if you can’t manage it all at once, that’s fine. You are still heading in a positive direction.

In fact, these tips form the basis of positive mealtime experiences for children of all ages, I still do this with my teenagers, and so as your child grows, and things change, don’t be afraid to revisit them.

Ok, so here we go…

Secret 1. Know your role

As a parent, our job is to try and keep our kids alive! 

And when they refuse to eat and go on hunger strike, that can really test our patience.

You may have a good eater but you’re worried they might not be getting all their nutrition. Worrying is natural, it’s part of what we all do.

And as a result, you may have started saying things like:

“just one more bite” or 

“eat your broccoli and you can have dessert” or

“Try the chicken and you can have a sticker on your chart”

But these strategies are stepping over the line from your responsibilities into your children’s responsibilities.

Your job is to provide healthy, nutritious food and then take a step back.

Your child’s job is to choose whether to eat it or not.

young family sharing a meal together at the table

Often as parents, we struggle to trust that our children are capable of making such important decisions and so have a tendency to take over, asking them to eat, reminding them to finish up. 

But actually, children have a really good sense of eating when they’re hungry, and stopping when they’re full. And even more than that, they’ll naturally gravitate towards food that contain more of the nutrients that their bodies actually need at the time.

But when we take over their role, we crush this natural ability. We actually ask our children to ignore their internal body signals and the result is a loss of their appetite regulation.

Controlling your child’s food intake in this way does have long term consequences and we know from the psychology of feeding research, that children who experience this are more likely to overeat, carry extra weight as they get older, get fussier and fussier with fewer and fewer foods they’ll accept.

They also tend to be unhappy at mealtimes, can seem anxious or stressed, don’t want to come to the table and are afraid to try new food.

Refer to my blog on ‘Division of Responsibility’ if you want to learn more about this. 

When you stick to your role and let your child stick to theirs, you’ll remove the stress that many of us feel at mealtimes as it immediately takes the pressure off you as a parent as you don’t need to ensure they eat, and it also lifts the pressure off your child as they won’t be expecting all the reminders!

What it means is no more negotiating, rewarding, bribing or asking your child to have ‘just one more forkful’, because your job is done the moment the food is put on the table!

When mealtimes are a pressure-free zone, kids will want to stay at the table for longer and even become interested in trying new foods.

Secret 2. Provide Structure

When children have structure to their day, that includes the timing of meals and snacks, they feel more secure.

Young children especially thrive on routine, thats why nursery and preschool often have very structured days.

toddler girl holding spoon in the air with a dish of food in front of her

One really great way to help your child feel secure around food is by creating a meal and snack schedule.

For older children, write out what you’re having and pin it up where the whole family can see.

For younger children use pictures to represent meals and snacks and anchor the timings to your daily activities. For example, “after we come home from the park, it will be time for lunch”.

Essentially, when there is structure around meals and snacks it reduces your child’s ‘food thinking’ because they come to expect when the next meal or snack is due. 

And if you’re consistent with this, after a few weeks it will stop the constant requests for snacks, helpful if you have a grazer.

A meal & snack schedule might look like:

7am            Breakfast

9.30am          Snack

12.00          Lunch

2.30pm            Snack

5.00pm       Dinner

7pm            Bedtime snack (if needed)

Another benefit of sticking to your schedule with consistency is it teaches your child appetite regulation and an understanding of their feelings of hunger and fullness. 

Research tells us that children who know what to expect and when, are more content, they tend to eat better at the allocated times and are less fussy. 

It also means you no longer have to say “no” all the time – how nice would that be?

Secret 3.  Serve your child’s meals ‘family style’

OK, I’m not going to insist you eat every single meal together as a family. I’m realistic enough to appreciate that this doesn’t always work.

Parents work, children need to eat early so they go to bed on time and frankly sharing a ‘grown up’ meal with your partner after the kids go to bed may be the only time you get alone these days.

young family eating a meal together outside

But you should know that children who eat together with their parents tend to be less fussy. Aim for weekends, breakfast if that’s possible but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t manage weeknight dinners.

The food you serve your children whether you’re eating with them or not, should definitely not be pre plated.

When you pre plate, you are showing them by your action, how much you expect them to eat. Remember Secret 1? This is not your job.

Instead, pop all the component parts of the meal in the centre of the table.

Give your child an empty plate and let them serve themselves. It’s a bit like them being at a buffet.

Obviously, help them where its needed, hot dishes and heavy lifting is going to be dangerous for under 5’s but let them tell you which food and indicate whether they want ‘more or ‘done’.

It might surprise you but even toddlers as young as 1 can get involved, they can point, sign and vocalise their desires even before they can talk.

Yes, they will make mistakes, they’ll spill the peas or take too much chicken and not be able to finish it but, you know what? That’s all ok, they’re children and they are learning.

Let them make mistakes and don’t show your displeasure. Mistakes without blame encourage children to try doing it differently next time. Honestly, it’s the best way for them to learn what’s right.

Always make sure there is some part of the meal that your child likes, even if it’s just a side dish. This way your child still feels reassured and comfortable that there’s always something to eat. 

This can be really helpful for fussy eaters who also suffer from anxiety at mealtimes.

Also have something they are familiar with but not eating yet. This helps them learn to like food.

There are 32 steps your child has to go through when learning to like food and just seeing food is actually one of those steps.

Deconstruct the meal by serving each part separately if you can, so for example the plain pasta in one dish, the sauce in a second dish, each vegetable in its own dish. 

Yes, there will be a little more washing up, but your child won’t fear ‘contamination’ and will learn to tolerate new foods visually and what they smell like, from a safe place. 

young toddler eating a meal

Secret 4.  Be a role positive model

When you can eat together, do.

Even if this is just Saturdays and Sundays, make a point of weekends being days for family meals. 

And when you can’t eat together, sit down with your child when they’re having their meals and snacks. 

If you can manage it, have a small portion of the same meal that your children are also having so they can see you eat.

The reason for this is because one of the ways children learn about food and eating is by watching others, and because you are their most trusted adult, and an example to them, they’ll be watching what you eat closely.

If your child is a fussy eater, you must be prepared to eat the foods they dont like, yourself. Children wont eat it if they don’t see you enjoying it first.

Parental role modelling is a very powerful tool when teaching a fussy toddler how to eat well.

 

Secret 5. Treat all foods equally 

Let me ask you this…

Have you ever called chocolate a ‘treat?’

Have you ever incentivised eating dinner with a yummy pudding?

toddler eating sweetcorn

Have you ever offered sweets to ‘make it feel better’ when your child falls and scrapes their knee?

I bet you have!

We all do this at one time or another. It’s an ingrained part of our culture. We use food to feel better, we use it as a reward, we use it to celebrate.

But when the foods we choose to do this with are sweet foods, we inadvertently make them more desirable than everything else, because we have attached emotion to them.

A yummy pudding as a reward for finishing their dinner is a guaranteed way of making sweet foods more desirable than anything else on offer….ever! 

But here’s the thing….

Sweet foods really don’t need any extra help, because children automatically love them. They are born with a preference for sweet tasting foods, it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism to help them seek out the breast at birth. Breastmilk is sweet. 

And you know what? You can’t fight this preference for sweet. It stays right through childhood and the teenage years.

So, what should you do if sweet foods have always been labelled treats?

Just keep offeringing them in appropriate portion sizes, alongside all the other food you offer, but lose the emotive language, the commentary or chat that goes along with it.

Make pudding a normal part of every meal, it comes as standard. It’s actually a great opportunity for more and different nutrition especially when they have had enough of dinner!

So, there you have it. My 5 best kept secrets for happy mealtimes and if you would like to learn more about how to feed your children well, I’d love to invite you into my Happy Healthy Eaters Club, a place where you can get all the tips, skills and knowledge you need to raise a happy healthy eater.

Start to help your fussy eater today by downloading my free guide, ‘5 things to address first before you can start to help your fussy eater’.

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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