Mealtime do's and don'ts
Things to say (and not to say) when encouraging a child to try new food.
"Do you like it?”, you say with a desperate tone and pleading look as your child takes their second bite of carrot stick. "No!", they say pushing away the plate and ending a few minutes of hope that a new food had been added to an already limited repertoire.
"Would you like to try the meat?", you ask, holding your breath. "No, it's yuck".
"Do you want... "No". This time you didn't even finish the questions.
Fussy eaters are acutely aware that you want them to try new foods, even young fussy eaters. They are used to the same questions being asked at every meal and they have their walls up and their answer ready. The answer is programmed, almost a reflex. They don't even really hear the questions, they just "No".
Older children will describe meals as a time of anxiety and stress. Constant comments about their diet, how healthy or unhealthy their choices are, statements about how delicious the food is that they are not eating. They feel out of control and pressured, and the more pressure they feel the more defensive they become and the less likely they are to try anything new.
The things we say at mealtime have a big impact on how our children feel and, on the likelihood, that they will try a food for the first time.
Here are some tips about things to say (and not say) at mealtimes that will make your child feel less anxious, more in control and therefore more likely to try something new.
- Have happy and positive conversations at mealtimes. Talk about your day, the weekend, tomorrow's soccer game. Avoid talking about your child's eating at all. In a relaxed and happy environment with no pressure to eat, they are more likely to try a new food.
- Avoid Yes/No questions. If you do not want "No" as an answer don't ask a Yes/No question. You will be amazed how often you use them once you start trying not to. Remember the rule is: You decide the when, where and what part of dinner and they decide the whether and how much. This means that you can choose to have at least one food at the table that your child does eat.
- Use statements. If you do speak about food and eating, use statements like, "You can help yourself" or "You can leave the broccoli on your plate.” With younger children, if they are eating a new food and ask for more, say things like "I can see that your mouth likes carrots." or "Your tummy likes that pasta." Remember to avoid asking “Do you like it?”
- Give gentle praise rather than a huge cheer when your child does try a new food. Jumping up to call grandma or getting out the pom poms reinforces just how much of an issue their eating, or not eating, is and can overwhelm a child. I have known children to stop eating after a big fuss had been made. Gentle praise like "good eating your pasta", or even better a smile or a quick hug as you walk past all give a positive, warm and fuzzy feeling that we are wanting to create at mealtimes.
- No “Yuck” rule. Have a rule at mealtimes that no one is allowed to make negative comments about the food choices or food eaten by others. This rule applies to all family members. Make up a fun name for the rule such as “Don't dis my dinner.” It means that no one can tell the fussy eater that their food choices are bad but at the same time the fussy eater cannot say that the food eaten by others is disgusting.
The aim is to create mealtimes where the mood is light and relaxed, where everyone is in control of what they choose to eat and how much, and where the fussy eater feels safe and in control to try new foods.