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Dinner Doesn’t Have to Be a Disaster {A Feeding Therapist’s Guide to Making Mealtime Tolerable}

As a pediatric feeding therapist, I’ve counseled many distraught mamas. I’ve held their hands and quietly offered the tissue box while they tearfully describe the last meal their child refused to eat. I’ve reassured them it’s not their fault and promised them we’ll fix it together. I’ve confidently proclaimed their baby won’t grow to be a 38-year-old man sustaining himself solely on goldfish crackers and vanilla yogurt.

But y’all, this was all BEFORE the dinner drama took center stage in my kitchen, and the distraught mama was yours truly. Feeding my child has proven to be an unexpected challenge of motherhood. 

girl eating cerealNowadays, I find myself sharing my dinner table with a tiny tyrant who throws more food than he consumes most nights whilst I struggle to maintain a shred of composure. I won’t pretend to have all the answers because my walls are currently covered with a layer of cottage cheese and I recently found a sad, shriveled carrot tucked carefully into the blinds IN MY BEDROOM. What’s a girl to do? Create an imperfect marriage of feeding therapy rigor and real life and implement it on the home front. Like any marriage, it isn’t always perfect, but I’ve found these strategies decrease our dinner drama:

Keep your expectations, ahem, low. We’d love our tiny tots to enjoy a meal of roasted chicken with a walnut cream sauce atop quinoa pilaf and paired with a lovely spinach salad. I mean, the bragging rights alone make me swoon! It’s wonderful to expose your children to a variety of novel foods; this is the best chance you have at creating a balanced eater. But y’all, this isn’t one of those times to shoot for the moon.

I’ve found it most successful to pair new (and/or scary) foods with some of your child’s old standbys. Offer a small portion of your fancy-pants foods paired with something you know your babe won’t refuse. In our house, I serve fruit and shredded cheese with literally every meal. Every single meal. Sometimes G eats only his favs and throws his new foods at our curtains. Other evenings he tastes and (gasp!) appears to enjoy the roasted fingerling potatoes. And you can bet we praise him to the high heavens when he’s willing to try a new food!

It can take as many as 15-20 offerings of a food before a child will feel comfortable eating it. Don’t give up if your child balks at broccoli the first time you offer it. Try and try again, mamas. If it feels like an exercise in futility, you’re doing it right! You’ll wonder why I don’t suggest you simply plop a $20 bill in your food processor and shred that sucker for all the food that is wasted. There is method to this madness. Experts report repeated exposure in absence of a negative outcome (think illness or excessive gagging) will increase the likelihood that children will add new foods to their repertoire. 

Make mealtime a family affair as often as possible. Guys, I KNOW the temptation to use that precious time while your wee ones are strapped into their highchairs to load the dishwasher or Facebook in (relative) peace is real. But if you take the time to sit down with your babies, you will reap the rewards. Talk about your day, read a book, play with your spaghetti snakes, or sort your mixed veggies by color. Put your money where your mouth is: Instead of negotiating with your kiddos to eat two more peas, let them see you eating your veggies. 

 

sad girlToss out the notion playing with your food is a bad thing. Eating is a multisensory experience and touching, smelling, and tasting are integral steps in familiarizing oneself with new foods. Children will typically touch a new food to explore its qualities before feeling brave enough to taste it, but our instincts have us reaching for the paper towels. Resist. Motherhood is messy, and man, so is mealtime. Let him squish his peas or peel the cheese off of his pizza. Peanut butter painting? Putting raspberries on each of his fingers and laughing manically while he eats them? Sure thing, buddy. At the end of the day, he’s exploring food and exposing the sensory receptors in his mouth and hands to a treasure trove of input. This is a good (albeit disgustingly messy) thing.

Don’t let your inner mom rage shine through at mealtime. This is particularly challenging for me, because unfortunately, I’m a yeller with the patience of a gnat. When G starts screeching, I just can’t with that nonsense. But I can assure you from personal experience that when you let mealtime turn into a battle of wills, you will not win. Oh, maybe in the short-term. You might have the resolve to wait out an epic tantrum over one bite. You may feel compelled to force a bite through those freakishly strong clenched lips. But before you take a victory lap around your kitchen, remember this triumph is short lived. When children associate eating with unpleasantness, it can quickly increase refusal behaviors and make that meltdown a force to be reckoned with next time around. Take a deep breath. Have a glass of wine. Just don’t swoop in with all your screaming — try to leave that to the little ones.  

Perspective is where it’s at. My children are offered a variety of healthy and nourishing foods everyday. Do they always choose to eat their vegetables? No flipping way. But they never go to bed hungry, and I continue to expose them to a variety of foods in hopes one day G’s unwavering love for Pirate’s Booty will fade. If your children are fed and happy, take comfort in knowing you’ve done your mommy due diligence. Tomorrow is a new day.

What are the biggest mealtime challenges you face in your house?

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2 Responses to Dinner Doesn’t Have to Be a Disaster {A Feeding Therapist’s Guide to Making Mealtime Tolerable}

  1. Diana
    Diana October 30, 2017 at 6:45 am #

    Oh thank you for writing this! I am right there, mama. My oldest throws food, refuses anything green (unless it’s in pouch form), and tips her whole plate over to play with her rejected scraps. What a great point about mealtime being a sensory experience, because I totally see that now. I always try to have a favorite food on her plate, which typically works wonders to get her to try bites of something new. But in the future, I’ll have to back off from discouraging the deconstruction of her PB&J.

    • Amanda
      Amanda October 30, 2017 at 10:13 pm #

      It can be so frustrating! But, letting them explore a new food truly does improve the likelihood of them actually eating it in the future. My favorite thing is when they cry and tantrum while I ask them to taste a food I would LOVE someone to beg ME to eat (i.e. grilled cheese-I mean, honestly. Who refuses a grilled cheese?!)

      Will she drink a smoothie? I often hide spinach, carrots, and if I’m feeling lucky, maybe even beets in their smoothies. Hang in there, mama!

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