Cut mealtime stress

Stay calm to help improve your toddler's eating habits.

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All too easily, mealtimes with a picky eater can become an emotional minefield that can leave you in tears and your toddler angry and upset. You may find yourself resorting to all the things you swore you’d never do – like offering ice cream as a reward for eating vegetables or giving crisps because you’re desperate for her to eat anything. The secret is to stay as calm as possible and not to get stressed by her picky preferences and point-blank refusals to eat.

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Why mums get stressed about food

‘There are psychological reasons why we give so much importance to feeding children,’ says psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue and pioneer in eating disorder study.

‘Feeding is one of the first ways we show love. Mums get stressed about feeding because they are uneasy with their own eating. They want to get their figures back and do right by their babies.

‘Mums get conflicting messages. They’re told: feed the baby when it’s hungry, but not every time it cries. Big babies are bonny, but don’t set up future problems by overfeeding them.’

Mixed messages

As parents we express alarm if children refuse food, but we also unwittingly create anxiety about food. Says Susie: ‘We discourage children from eating crisps and chocolate, then use them as rewards or to comfort them. Skipping meals and dieting gives mixed messages too,’ she adds.

Why won’t she eat?

‘Children pick up on the fact that refusing to eat gets attention,’ says Irene Addo, a health visitor for Southwark Primary Care Trust, London, who sees children with eating problems.

‘Refusal to eat isn’t always about food – it can be about other things that are happening, like the birth of a sibling, starting nursery or moving house.’ It can also be an issue of control for a child of parents who are hot on discipline.

Will she still grow?

‘Lots of parents swear their child eats nothing and worry she won’t grow,’ says Irene. ‘If this is the case, get your health visitor to check her on the growth charts.’

‘It’s not unusual for under-fives to eat little, it’s overall development that counts,’ says dietician Lyndel Costain. ‘Toddlers get lots of calories from tiny portions. If you’re concerned, write down everything she eats for a week. It may be better than you think, even if variety is limited,’ he explains.

What is enough?

A 12 to 18-month-old child should have daily: four servings of starchy foods (bread, pasta, potatoes or cereal); four of fruit or vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned, dried or diluted juice); one to two of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, lentils or tofu and 350ml of milk. A serving is an amount that would fit into the palm of her hand.

From 18 months to three years, toddlers need regular meals, plus nutritious snacks as their energy needs increase. If your toddler isn’t keen on milk give full-fat yogurt or cheese daily.

Good eating habits

Research suggests that we have a lot to learn from the French. Lyndel says: ‘Levels of adult obesity in France are half those in the UK and experts believe much of this is due to the more structured way French parents encourage their children to eat.

‘They teach them about the importance of mealtimes, and there is little concern about children not eating enough.’

This approach contrasts with the USA where the focus is on letting children choose what, when and how much they eat. This approach leads to frequent snacking on high-fat and sugary foods and drinks and more excess weight gain.

Lyndel says: ‘Studies show that children who eat set meals with their family, eat more fruit and vegetables, have less fizzy drinks and eat less fat.

‘Similar results have been found if families eat together at the table as opposed to on the sofa in front of the television. Watching less TV also helps – prevent obesity in children.’

Dos and Don’t’s

Susie Orbach offers this advice to make mealtimes less stressful.

Do introduce your child to mashed versions of what you eat, including spicy foods.

Don’t force her to eat spoonfuls of food she turns away from – she may genuinely not like the taste or may not feel hungry.

Do include your baby in family meals – get a clip-on baby seat for your kitchen table so he feels part of it.

Don’t blackmail her into eating vegetables with the promise of sweets or a pudding afterwards.

Do show that you really relish your food.

Don’t differentiate between kids’ and adult foods. Children’s tastes are as sophisticated as the foods they are exposed to.

Do put lots of different kinds of food out and let the children decide what they fancy of each.

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Don’t reward them, cheer them up or jolly them along with food unless you know they are genuinely hungry.

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