Help fussy eaters come to the dinner table
Food is, by definition, difficult for fussy eaters. However, nothing is harder for either the child or the parent than dinner.
Children can often cruise happily through breakfast, snacks, and lunch. Then, faced with dinner, it all comes to a screaming (sometimes literally) halt.
– Maybe you have a child who starts asking first thing in the morning “what’s for dinner?” as they want to know it’s something they like. Or they want a whole day to complain to you about the choice. Or they spend a whole day ruminating on how awful dinner is!
– Maybe you have a child who takes one look at the dinner table and decides NO.
– Maybe you have a little one who squirms manically so you can’t get them into the chair.
– Or maybe your child comes to the table but only stays for a scant few minutes before bolting.
Coming to the table and staying at the table are often interconnected so working on a child happily appearing to eat can often help them then sit for a reasonable time.
Understanding the reasons why dinner is more challenging can be helpful in also finding ways we can support our child to find dinners less of a struggle.
How to help a fussy eater come to the table
1. End of the day – dinner is at the end of the day and there is absolutely nothing we can do about this!
What it does mean though is that everyone, parents included, are more tired, less patient, and more likely to be carrying a world of overload or overwhelm with them.
How many times at the end of a long day does putting dinner on the table feel like an insurmountable task?
If we feel like that then imagine what it’s like for a child. Particularly a busy toddler who has been on the go all day, or a child with sensory sensitivities who has just held it together through school. Or a child who doesn’t really eat lunch when away from home so is ‘hangry’.
What we can do though is appreciate that dinner is generally going to be more difficult just because it is at the end of the day. We may also be able to make changes so things go a little more smoothly (read on …).
Remembering it is going to be the meal that we are all more tired and less patient at so not pushing a child at this time is probably advisable. In fact, one of my golden rules is “dinner is not the time to teach someone to eat”.
Yes, we want to role model eating food and eating it pleasurably, and over time that does help a child to eat. But direct actions involving broccoli or chicken are not the best idea.
2. Enjoyment – we look forward to the things we enjoy. There is also research that says we come to enjoy the things we do regularly. Having these two thoughts front of mind is helpful.
How can we make the meal table more enjoyable?
i) Forget the teaching (see point 1). If we are consistently attempting to get our child to eat broccoli or chicken it is not a pleasant place to be. Would you like to be at a table where someone was pushing you to eat something you are not comfortable eating?
ii) Create a warm environment. Instead of dinner being focused on eating, if we can make it about the connection and the joy of bonding then it shifts the emphasis.
If a child can come to the table and have a good time, regardless of what they eat then that is the perfect scenario. I work with plenty of families who achieve this even with a child who only has 2 dinner options.
iii) Welcome them. Taking the emphasis off the food so a child feels like the family want them there even if they are only having a piece of toast is important long-term.
3. Serve something a child can eat. If you were staying with someone and night after night they served foods you didn’t enjoy, would you be enthusiastic about coming to the table?
No child is going to look forward to dinner if they know all the foods are out of their comfort zone, particularly if they then get nagged about this.
Serving one food at least that a child can eat helps to encourage them to both come to the table and stay there.
Does this mean we should be eating chicken nuggets or Vegemite on toast every night too? Absolutely not. In fact, the opposite!
i) Set the bar high. It’s important that we do show our child how to eat the foods we eat. If we are dumbing down our offerings to what they will eat then they do not have the opportunity to learn to eat the lasagne or the curry.
ii) Show enjoyment. If we only eat nuggets and toast our enthusiasm wanes too. We stop getting excited about dinner and then, inadvertently, we become a bad example. We are not showing our child how to eat a wide variety of foods joyfully.
iii) Think outside the square. Traditional dinner foods are ideally served. However, if you have a child who is currently only eating a narrow range of foods this may be difficult.
Foods that are not generally served at dinner may be the compromise between serving what you want for the rest of the family and making sure a picky eater is fed.
This may mean yoghurt, fruit, nuts, or cheese squares are part of the main meal, for example.
Should we cook 2 meals? Also no. But may we have to compromise on what we cook and what we offer? Yes. For example, our child may take a while to learn to transition from eating chicken nuggets to eating a roast.
In the interim we may have to serve both fer a while. However, if the oven is on, adding in a few nuggets is not ‘double cooking’ though so should be manageable.
There are also upsides to doing this. Firstly, if a child comes to the table happily it will change how both you and they feel about dinner. Secondly, the more relaxed we are, the more likely we are to eat.
Having a pleasant mealtime will encourage better eating and overtime lead to a child managing more of the family foods. Building a comfort level with food takes time and so consistently having a happy child at the table supports this.
If you would like more support around this please feel free to get in touch.
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (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: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/