Is mealtime anxiety affecting the relationship with your child and your child’s relationship with food? and if you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you really should read this article:
- Do mealtimes with your child make you feel anxious?
- Do you sometimes feel like you’re losing control of the feeding routine?
- Are you anxious about meeting your little one’s nutritional needs?
- Does the feeling of overwhelm by expectations and responsibilities saturate mealtimes?
- Are your emotions clouding your judgement and affecting your behaviour – and consequently the behaviour of your child?
- Do your emotions spill over and disrupt the feeding process?
- Is your child responding negatively to you at mealtimes because of your anxiety?
When pregnant, you probably imagined mealtimes to be about blissful bonding over cubes of cucumber rather than kitchen chaos. There’s a huge disconnect between what we think parenting is going to be like and the challenging realities. Feeding time with babies and toddlers can bring out the worst in us (and them!), especially if you’re feeling anxious. But trust me, there is a way forward.
What is in your control at mealtimes?
When it comes to parenting babies and toddlers, two of the most frustrating areas involve sleeping and eating. Unfortunately, these just happen to be the two things that parents have very little control over. And when we think we’re losing control, we respond in ways that are totally counterproductive.
A parent who’s lost control often raises their voice and behaves irrationally. But how can our children learn to manage emotional stress if their role models haven’t figured it out for themselves?
I think we’re burdened with the misconception that we have all the power to change a child’s decision. The truth is, we can only shape their decisions by leading through example. Non-responsive feeding practices such as scolding, threatening, bribing, force feeding and hiding foods will, in all likelihood, reinforce a child’s picky eater behaviour and build anxiety around mealtimes.
The good news is that when it comes to food, we can influence their decisions by writing positive neuropathways.
An anxious parent will often fear the worst instead of embracing the flourishing journey of discovery, learning, making their own decisions. Equally as important is making their own mistakes.
So how do we go about calming adult mealtime anxiety?
Understanding the cause of your anxiety is half the battle. It’s not easy, but by changing the paradigm around mealtimes, you can change your world.
Here are my five tried-and-tested tips for managing mealtime anxiety
#1 Understand what is in your control
Let’s start by chatting about things that aren’t in your control.
You need to accept that you can’t control what food gets past your child’s lips.
Over the years, I’ve seen parents try and feed their child according to the size of their own grown-up appetites. The fact is, a child will be satisfied by eating a tablespoon of food at each mealtime that corresponds to their age. For example, a two-year-old will be satisfied on two tablespoons of oats in the morning. Feeding beyond a child’s appetite will very quickly lead to the child feeling uncomfortable. As soon as that happens, they will attempt to take back control with non-responsive behavior.
But remember, you do have control over what you offer your child to eat. You control what you buy at the shops and what’s in the fridge and pantry and whether or not you head for the fast-food drive-thu.
#2 Create routines
Very often, mealtime anxiety comes from a place of feeling out of control. Parents predict the worst outcome and fear that their child won’t get a balanced diet and therefore won’t thrive.
Limitations in a young child’s ability to communicate can be behind their unwillingness to co-operate at mealtimes. Children under the age of six are 80% more likely to take in information through their own eyes and experiences rather than through a verbal input – so telling your young child what’s for dinner may not actually be the best way to start a peaceful mealtime.
A better, more positive step is to encourage your child to play an active role in the meal preparation. You can also show them pictures of what the meal is (for example a picture of a roast chicken and vegetables) so that they can visualise and process what lies ahead.
#3 Pick your battles
Play to your strengths and outsource your stress. Get your partner involved in mealtimes, encourage positive chatter at the table and hold your tongue if you’re tempted to threaten, bribe, scold or raise your voice. If you’re on your own and dinner time is too stressful for you, you could try and anchor the child’s nutrition at lunchtime when the child is happier and more willing to co-operate and choose a lighter, healthy snack in the evening.
#4 Teach by doing
Eat by example. Teach them the importance of nourishing our whole bodies with whole foods. Put a fruit bowl within easy reach of your child and encourage them to help themselves at any time of the day. Share an apple, a mandarin or banana together and let your child learn by ‘doing’ with you.
Perhaps you might like this placemat sensory tool to help your child learn about new foods.
#5 Focus on the good
Avoid referring to foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. A much better alternative (which has long-term upsides for positive attitudes to food and healthy eating habits) is to use the terms ‘always’ and ‘sometimes’ foods. Teach them about our gut biome and how we must be balance the ‘sometimes’ foods with 5 servings a day of ‘always’ fibrous foods.
We are all placed on this earth with our own unique set of sensory preferences and tolerances and eating isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
For a child to take the plunge and taste a new food, there must be a tremendous collaboration of physical and mental processes. All sorts of selection criteria are involved including past positive or negative associations, the processing of oral motor functions for biting, chewing and swallowing and deciphering their feelings of hunger and satisfaction.
Understanding these complexities may help you to appreciate just how difficult it is for some children to experiment with taste and texture and why some of them take a little longer to branch out into foods that aren’t packaged or evenly shaped.
So, celebrate when your child tastes a new food – even if they spit it out! Building flavour profiles is essential before foods will be willingly accepted into their regular diet.
But what happens if you’ve taken all these steps and your child still refuses a meal?
Don’t worry. That’s completely normal. Always remember, another meal will follow and your child will not starve!
There’s no harm in teaching a child what hunger is.
Spoon-fed children can be robbed of the pleasure of learning how to satisfy a feeling of hunger. Sometimes, it’s only when they reach toddler age that they experience the pleasure of taming their own appetites.
Also, when a child doesn’t eat, it can be because their body is telling them that they are fighting against a nasty bug. This is the body’s survival mechanism – but sometimes parents don’t get the message! Try and suppress any distress or concern you may be feeling about an uneaten meal and trust the process of autophagy to build your child’s immune system. Rest easy and trust that they will wake with an even greater hunger – and you never know, you may just get an extra tablespoon of oats down or better still, your little one may even try something new!
If you still feel that your mealtime anxiety is affecting your child’s nutrition, reach out to me let’s have a chat. I promise there’s a solution that will change your family mealtime forever.
To get more information on the Little Fusspot online feeding therapies visit https://www.littlefusspot.com/
Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash