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Pre-dinner routines for fussy eaters

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Predinner routines for fussy eaters

We have all heard of bedtime routines, and many parents use them to help children get happily into bed and sleeping well. There are reasons why they are important and why they work.

But have you ever thought of using a pre-dinner routine?

A lot of the same rationale applies for pre-dinner and bedtime routines. I know we don’t talk about them as commonly as we do sleep routines, but all the top feeding experts recommend we use them!

Why have a pre-dinner routine?

Pre-dinner routines can help you support your child to be as prepared as possible before dinner starts.

  1. Dinner can be scary. Dinner is often a challenging time for picky eaters.

Breakfast, lunches and snacks are generally easier as they are predictable with foods your child is comfortable with and expecting. Evening meals are more difficult with foods that may be new/mixed/different. Any preparation that helps your child prepare mentally is good!

  1. Tired and done. It is also the end of the day so all of us – including parents – are finding we are ‘over’ everything.

If dinner is not something that your child looks forward to, it can be a big hurdle when they are already tired mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Paving the way with a familiar routine can make it easier to ‘go with the flow’, as it requires less conscious effort.

  1. Predictability. Routines are great for children and help them feel safe and secure.

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Routines also calm the brain as it knows what is about to happen. The brain loves habits as it does not have to work as hard.

Therefore, a routine stops the brain whirring and allows it to relax a little (not a bad thing at the end of a long day).

The more predictable the routine the more the brain can go into auto-mode.

  1. Timing. A routine that works in with the timing of dinner is super helpful. Knowing when food is arriving next is comforting.

If food is at a similar time every night, your child knows what to expect. It can also make it easier to prevent unnecessary snacking.

  1. Physiologically ready. Our bodies thrive on routine. If we go to the toilet or have a cup of coffee at about the same time every day our body begins to expect that and even give us cues.

Eating is similar. If breakfast is always at 8.00am you feel hungry at that time. Having very specific cues to say ‘food is coming’ helps your body expect it.

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  1. Dinner goes better. If your child is ready physically, emotionally, and mentally for the evening meal, they are more likely to come to the table happily and then sit and eat competently.

When you have routines and rhythms that you do automatically it is calming and makes mealtimes more peaceful and manageable.

Prepare for a pre-dinner routine

It is important that you are prepared. Helping your child be ready and relaxed coming into the meal often begins with how a parent is showing up. If you are in a flap, it is far harder for your child to be calm.

And I totally get that the end of the day is a nightmare for many parents as there is too little time and way too much pressure. However, I always look for ways to make the meal easier. Is it having a sauce made the night before or having a main ingredient pre-cooked and defrosted from the freezer?

Being in as calm a space as possible as the caregiver really helps, but then so does having a series of steps that cue the brain that it is going to be time to eat.

What does a pre-dinner routine look like?

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  1. Music – Music is a great way to activate the brain. Preschools often use a specific song to let children know it is time to tidy up. Hearing the song lets even very young children know they need to do something.

Can you play the ‘dinner is almost ready’ song? This will cue everyone that it’s time to stop what they are doing and move to the next part of the routine.

2.Organise movement. As dinners are often a challenge getting children moving prior to dinner is a plus:

i) Sitting still. This can be difficult. If your child has moved their body first it is easier to stay in their seat – especially for a high-energy child or one who finds sitting in general a chore.

ii) Alert. If your child has been sleepily lying on the couch then drags themselves to the table, often that ‘I can’t be bothered attitude’ spills over into dinner.

iii) Sillies be gone. At the end of the day children can get giddy, especially when there is more than one child. Moving is a great way to get the sillies out and prepare them to be calmer at the table.

  1. Calming. After movement it is important to prepare our child for the relative calm of sitting at the table. Exercise followed by a quiet activity like a quick book, colouring in or part of a puzzle can work well. This does not have to be for a long time. Think approx 5 minutes to transition from movement to calm.

Or it may be a quieter song or a chat about their favourite thing while you put the finishing touches to dinner.

Conversely, high-energy children may benefit more from movement, but calming movement such as rhythmic bouncing.

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  1. Washing hands. Getting the hands clean is a very specific cue telling the brain that eating is going to happen soon.
  2. Food prep. It’s great to have your child involved in the food prep. Even if they are super young, they can sprinkle some salt or shake some salad dressing.

Just choosing between two herbs is involving them. If your child expects to be involved, over time they will be.

  1. Table prep. Giving your child a ‘job’ they always do to get the table ready is important. Perhaps it is taking over napkins, table mats or the water.
  2. Bell. A bell can be really fun! However, it works best when the bell is only rung right before dinner is ready to be served. Again, it is a very specific cue to the body to prepare to eat.Pre-dinner routines for fussy eaters, Judith Yeabsley|Fussy Eating NZ, Ring bell, #Pre-DinnerRoutinesForFussyEaters, #Pre-DinnerRoutinesForPickyEaters, #TryNewFoods, #TheConfidentEater, #FussyEatingNZ, #HelpForFussyEating, #HelpForFussyEaters, #FussyEater, #FussyEating, #PickyEater, #PickyEating, #SupportForFussyEaters, #SupportForPickyEaters, #CreatingConfidentEaters, #TryNewFood #PickyEatingNZ #HelpForPickyEaters, #HelpForPickyEating, #Wellington, #NZ, #JudithYeabsley

Children can take it in turns ringing it each night. It is also useful as you are no longer shouting around the house for partners or older children to come to the table!

These routines work best when everyone is on board, and does them consistently. Remember, you are priming the brain and letting it know it can relax as it knows what is about to happen.

The calming effects of a pre-dinner routine can be positive if your child is anxious around food too.

What does movement look like?

Your body is better able to cope with something challenging when it is prepared.

If you support your child to engage their proprioceptive system, they are using one of the main senses (yes there are more than five).

The sixth sense, also called kinaesthesia, is all about body position. It is activated when you use muscles, joints, and tendons.

Pre-dinner routines for fussy eaters, Judith Yeabsley|Fussy Eating NZ, Jumping, #Pre-DinnerRoutinesForFussyEaters, #Pre-DinnerRoutinesForPickyEaters, #TryNewFoods, #TheConfidentEater, #FussyEatingNZ, #HelpForFussyEating, #HelpForFussyEaters, #FussyEater, #FussyEating, #PickyEater, #PickyEating, #SupportForFussyEaters, #SupportForPickyEaters, #CreatingConfidentEaters, #TryNewFood #PickyEatingNZ #HelpForPickyEaters, #HelpForPickyEating, #Wellington, #NZ, #JudithYeabsley

Great movements to engage the proprioceptive system are swinging, jumping, boxing, or running. For a less high-energy child it may be gentle dancing or basic yoga.

Doing this helps to empty ‘the sensory cup’ and reduce the overwhelm.

As eating is a big sensory experience (smells, sights, touch, sounds etc.). Then having the overload of the day balanced out is a big plus, particularly for littlies.

To understand how this works you can think of it in adult terms. If you dash home from work and straight into parent mode without having time to change, breathe, mentally switch into home mode then it feels more pressured.

A pre-dinner routine helps prepare your child for dinner and for those meals be smoother and calmer for everyone.

Have you already got a pre-dinner routine or are you now thinking of creating one?

If you do not have one yet, start small. Maybe it is just hand washing and the bell. Gradually add in new things when you are ready.

Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), MSc Psychology (first-class honours), Massey University, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.

She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.

Learn more about Judith here:

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