Written by Gemma Ransome, registered paediatric & women's health dietitian
What are mealtimes with your little ones like? As a mum of two I know first-hand they are never plain-sailing and can be challenging, even stressful. Understanding the importance of offering your child a healthy diet is one thing; getting them to participate and, god forbid, enjoy something beyond pizza and chips is another. Here are some tips to keep you and your children happy to minimise those mealtime battles:
1. Set a meal and snack time schedule
Allowing kids to graze all day interferes with their appetites and disrupts their natural instinct to experience hunger and fullness. Young children will need three meals and two to three nutritious snacks per day. If your child is the type to constantly ask for snacks, be prepared to say, “No, you will have to wait until [insert next snack/mealtime] for something to eat”. Drinks immediately before a meal can also often be the cause for a poor appetite.
2. Involve your kids
Try sometimes to involve your kids with the food shopping and meal preparation. Older kids may like to help putting together a meal and snack planner for the week which helps them know what to expect. An added benefit is that meal-planning will save you time, money and reduce food waste.
3. Make mealtimes positive and sociable
Mealtimes are an opportunity to connect as a family and model healthy and good eating behaviours. Realistically, most families struggle to sit together every mealtime, but try to pick a few slots per week, even if it is breakfast. Try your best to avoid distractions such as television, tablets and toys, and limit mealtimes to 20-30 minutes to stop them dragging on too long.
4. Offer a variety of foods and control your portions
Offer a variety of colourful foods from each of the foods groups each day to provide a range of nutrients. Young children may find food more appealing when it is presented in fun ways. Offering large platefuls of food can be overwhelming and can stop kids enjoying mealtimes. Instead offer smaller portions and offer seconds if wanted. Contrary to what our parents told us, don’t insist they finish their plate. Allow them to self-moderate.
5. Always offer pudding with lunch and dinner
Always offer pudding after the lunch and evening meal, even if the first course is not eaten. You may feel the threat of withholding pudding will entice your child to eat (I still catch my husband trying this one), but pudding should not be seen as a reward for eating the first course. A nutritious pudding such as fruit, natural yoghurt or other milk based desserts offers a second opportunity to take in extra calories and nutrients.
6. Introduce new foods
Offer new foods alongside liked foods and give plenty of positive encouragement if they do try it. You could suggest your child gets used to saying “I am learning to like it” instead of “I don’t like it” so that they understand that a new food may need to be tried multiple times. As I’ve experienced with my little ones, some food needs to be tried upwards of 10 times before they are accepted, so be persistent!
Reward charts and non-food incentives may be useful for some. Often it is better to say “you don’t have to eat it” but don’t offer any alternatives. Instead focus your attention on good behaviour and try to ignore unwanted behaviour as this will help reduce anxiety and pressure at mealtimes. Just try to keep calm and carry on.
Want further advice about your child’s diet?
If you feel your child’s eating behaviour goes beyond simple fussy eating, shows no sign of improving, or if you are worried about their weight and growth, please get in touch to find out how I can help.
As a registered dietitian and mum of two young children, I am passionate about nutrition and love working with children and their families to improve their nutritional intake to support and optimise their growth and development.
After becoming a Cookham resident last year, I established a private practice specialising in paediatrics and women’s health nutrition. For bookings and enquiries email me on firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how I can help you. Please see www.gemmaransome.co.uk for further information.