Winning the Mealtime Battle

Written by Sarah Alder of Kitchen Titbits

As a couple, food is probably what binds us the most. When we welcomed H into the world, we were excited for him to share food with us, to sit at the table and eat together and to see the joy on his face when experiencing new and interesting flavours or the pleasure of visiting a restaurant.

For a couple of years after weaning, he’d tuck into anything and everything. He’d declare his favourite meal as ‘paella’ to anyone who asked and would request I cook him squid when his peers might not venture further than a fish finger. He would cook with me, tasting as we went and chatting about the ingredients. He was a sponge, soaking up everything I had to teach him. It felt wonderful!

Then, something changed. This little boy who’d try anything turned into a food refuser. A wholesome and varied diet restricted to a few acceptable foods –raw red pepper and carrot, cucumber and sweetcorn, cheese and ham, bread and crackers, cheese and tomato pizza, fish fingers and not much more.

Suddenly, I knew just how so many parents feel at mealtimes. Dread, anger, stress, bewilderment. I just wanted the dining room to open up and swallow me.

We tried to follow our instincts and the advice for coping with the ordeal; not getting angry or upset was easier said than done and there was so much conflicting information that I didn’t know where to start. I needed tried and tested methods.

So, I read and read and read and determined what would be the most sensible things to try first; persisting with offering the food we wanted him to eat in small amounts, not offering an alternative, praising when he tried something and trying to remind ourselves that he’d eat if he was really hungry (turned out he was so stubborn that he wouldn’t!).

It was OK knowing some simple approaches to employ but it was slow going and so I started reading about the psychological and social aspects of eating, about child behaviour, even delving into the area of autism,where there are known sensitivities around textures of foods and trying new things.

I was able to start piecing things together and forming a plan of action. Two years later,we weren’t free of the battle with food, but the situation was hugely improved. The acceptable food pool had widened and the call to the table was no longer met with a complete meltdown.

Now, almost four years on, I would say we’ve definitely cracked it and I no longer consider H a fussy eater (we’re just going through it all again with our daughter!). Yes, there are foods he doesn’t enjoy. Yes, there are foods he’s yet to try or has tried but needs to keep trying. Yes, there are mealtimes where he’ll start to make a fuss. But, that’s just like any other child!

So, how did we cope with the challenge? I realised that his life is managed for him in so many ways and that he’s constantly being told what to do and when. What goes in his mouth is the only thing he can dictate and we needed to get around this. We found ways for him to assert some control over what he eats, within the boundaries that we set.

Each weekday he chooses what to have for breakfast from a small selection. At the weekends, we often have a more leisurely breakfast and he has the opportunity to request something he likes; fruit pancakes, sausage bagels, omelette and toast, sweetcorn fritters.

At the weekend, he picks what to have for lunch, but we all eat the same thing together at teatime. He also contributes to our weekly meal plans. It’s another way for him to feel in control.

One of the easiest ways I’ve found to make mealtimes less stressful and more varied,whilst ensuring I am only preparing one dinner is to serve meals family-style. All that means is that, instead of serving a meal plated up for everyone, all the food goes in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves.

We’re made food fun again instead of it being a battleground and it worked – I think the fact that he now wants to ‘style’ his meal and take a photo of it just like daddy is a positive sign!

Family mealtimes should be sociable affairs, full of laughter and a way to reconnect after a busy day or week. Instead they are all too often a stressful and upsetting time. But they don’t have to be this way.

My ‘How to feed your fussy eater’ four-week interactive online programme will equip you with an armoury of techniques, words and activities so that you can turn mealtimes around. Food will no longer be scary, the dinner table will no longer be a battleground, you will be able to remain calm, you’ll have an endless supply of meal ideas, food will be served which everyone will enjoy and the vegetables will get eaten (eventually!).

I’ve got bonus appearances from Laura Clark Nutrition and Heather Keats Health and Fitness lined up as well to support you with any nutrition concerns and techniques to help you reduce your stress and remain calm. Once the course is finished, you’ll also have the option to join a community of supportive mums (dads are welcome too!) who have attended my courses and workshops and who know just what it’s like. You’ll receive ongoing support and encouragement from us all.

So, if you’re ready to help your family enjoy healthier, happier and stress-free mealtimes, join me for the course starting on 27 April! It will be running termly so if now isn’t the right time for you, join me for the next one after the May half term.

If the course isn’t for you but you know a mum (or dad) who is at their wits end come mealtimes, please tell them about my course. They don’t need to face this alone and they don’t need to continue to suffer.

Why not also take a look at my other posts –

Lisa Norman shares her story on the premature birth of her son Neil

Interview with Jo Coombs and Robert Papworth of the new selling site Made by Mums

Book review of Jo Middleton’s fabulous book Playgroups and Prosecco