Predinner routines for a picky eater
We have all heard of bedtime routines, and many of us use them to help the children get happily into bed and sleeping well. There are solid 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 as to why they are a good idea. I know we don’t talk about them as commonly as we do sleep routines, but all the best feeding experts recommend we do.
Why have a pre-dinner routine?
Pre-dinner routines can help us support our child to be as prepared as possible before dinner starts.
1. Dinner can be scary. Dinner is often a challenging time for picky eaters. Snacks are generally easier as they are predictable with foods our child is expecting. Evening meals are far more scary with foods that may be new/mixed/different. Any preparation that helps our child prepare mentally is good!
2. Tired and done! It is also the end of the day so all of us – including parents – are getting over everything. If dinner is not something that our child looks forward to, it can be a big hurdle when they are already tired mentally, emotionally, and physically.
3. Predictability. Routines are great for children and help them feel safe and secure. It also calms 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.
4. Timing. Knowing when the next food is arriving is comforting. When meals are ad hoc it can be disconcerting for some children as they are not sure what is going to happen.
If food is at a similar time every night it also makes it easier to prevent unnecessary snacking.
5. 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 expects that. Eating is similar. If breakfast is always at 8.00am we feel hungry at that time. Having very specific cues to say ‘food is coming’ helps our body expect it.
6. Dinner goes better. If our 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 we have routines and rhythms that we do automatically it helps calm and make mealtimes more peaceful and manageable.
What does a pre-dinner routine look like?
But before that, it is important that we are prepared! Helping our child be ready and relaxed often begins with us. If we are in a flap, it is far harder for our child to be calm.
I get that the end of the day is a nightmare for many of us with too little time and way too much pressure, but I always think what could 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?
Once we are organised what can we coordinate for our child?
1. Organise movement. Dinners are often a challenge on a number of levels for children so getting them moving prior to dinner is a plus:
i) Sitting still can be difficult. If our child has moved the body first it is easier to stay in the seat – especially for a high-energy child.
ii) Alert. If our 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 we have more than one child. Moving is a great way to get the sillies out and prepare them to be calmer at the table.
2. 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, colour or part of a puzzle can work well.
For other children it may be a quieter song or a chat about their favourite thing while we put the finishing touches to dinner.
3. Washing hands. Getting the hands clean is a very specific cue telling the brain that eating is soon as well as being great hygiene!
4. Food prep. It’s great to have our child involved in the food prep. Even if they are super young they can sprinkle some salt or shake in some salad dressing. Just choosing between two herbs is involving them. If our child expects to be involved, over time they will be.
5. Integral part of table prep. Giving our child a ‘job’ that they always do to get the table ready is great. Perhaps it is taking over napkins, tablemats or the water.
6. Bell. Having a bell is fun! But we only ring it right when dinner is ready to be served. Again, it is a very specific cue to the body to prepare to eat. The children can take it in turns ringing it each night. It is also useful as we 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 we do them consistently. Remember, we are priming the brain and letting it know it can relax as it knows what is about to happen. That calming can be positive if our child is anxious around food too.
What does movement look like?
Our body is better able to cope with something challenging when it is prepared.
If we support our child to engage the proprioceptive system we 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 we use muscles, joints, and tendons.
Great movements to engage the system are swinging, jumping, boxing, or running. For a less high-energy child it may be gentle dancing or basic yoga. Often having a piece of music that is the same every night helps too.
Doing this helps to empty ‘the sensory cup’ and reduce the overwhelm.
As eating is a big sensory experience (smells, sights, sounds etc.). Then having the overload of the day balanced out is a big plus, especially for littlies.
To understand how this works we can think of it in adult terms. If we dash home from work and straight into parent mode it is not as relaxing as having time to change, breath, mentally switch into home mode etc.
All of these strategies help prepare our child for dinner and help 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 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/