Tips to get fussy children to come to the table
I remember speaking to the mum of a boy with ASD and ADHD who told me that every time someone mentioned a family meal she just rolled her eyes.
We do get bashed over the head about how important family meals are, but what if you have a toddler, a food anxious child or one who marches to a different beat who has other ideas?
Should you just give up and fight another battle?
Firstly, I think it’s important to understand why family meals are universally promoted, and yes I think they are an integral part of children eating widely and well too.
Why have children at the table?
1. Modelling. Children learn far more from watching than hearing. Seeing us pleasurably eating the greens helps them to do the same.
2. Connecting. Studies show that children who eat family meals are often better socially adjusted, stay in school longer and it supports long-term transitions into successful adulthood. Whoa, that’s pretty full-on!!
3. Opportunity. Being at the table with different choices, the time to appreciate new foods and tuning out distractions all supports more competent eating.
What if they don’t want to come to the table?
Not wanting to eat at the table is really common so if it’s a struggle do not feel like you’re alone. Toddlers, non-neurotypical children and the food anxious often find it particularly challenging.
On the other hand, just like a lot of other routines, we can gradually work towards it and incorporate it into our routines. Framing it as something that is going to be an ongoing progression rather than a magical change can be helpful.
Rather than going from no family meals to a 30-minute extravaganza, can we have our child join us for x amount of time? How long x is depends on age and stage. Perhaps it’s 2 minutes to start.
How to help fussy children come to the table
To a degree some of that will again depend on age and stage. I will give a long list and you can pick which ones are appropriate for your child and your family:
1. Pre-dinner routines. Most of us have bedtime routines (I have one for myself ). We have them as they work! Our brain likes to know what is happening next, it is a calming thing. Routines cue the brain and body and prepare it for what is needed.
These routines will look different depending on what works for you, but some of the suggestions below may be part of that routine.
2. Transitions. One of the key difficulties for children is often stopping an activity in favour of coming to the table. Dragging a toddler away from the toys or a teen away from the Ipad for a comparatively speaking ‘boring dinner’ is tough. How can we make it easier though?:
i) Expectations. Setting overarching expectations of what we would like to happen for the whole family.
ii) Giving warning. Rather than shouting “dinner is ready now”, having a series of warnings – or setting into place a pre-dinner routine that does this for us, is ideal.
iii) Being organised. Ensuring that when everyone does come to the table, things are ready, and everyone is able to eat and then move onto other things.
3. Sharing control. Feeling like we have some control is important for all of us and coming to the table is no exception. If we have a toddler perhaps they are choosing where to put their seat. If it’s a primary-aged child perhaps it is picking the placemats. For older children perhaps choosing the drinks.
4. Integral part of routines. Being part of the dinner routine can be really supportive. I still remember what my ‘job’ was as a child at both my parents house and when I was at my grandparents. We had specific things we were expected to do.
Perhaps it’s taking cutlery or placemats to the table. Maybe it’s stirring the sauce or shaking the dressing. In fact, any time children are part of more than just showing up and eating they have an investment in the meal.
The logical extension to this is having them responsible for some of the cooking or some of the prep. Even toddlers can stir, wash or rip and teens may be more willing if they can add a favourite sauce or take away something less favoured!
5. Fun. The more fun mealtimes are, the more likely we are to engage. Which doesn’t mean clown suits and dancing monkeys, but there are many ways we can make mealtimes into fun events.
Our table is often a place where we all laugh. My husband and I have accepted we’re the butt of the majority of the jokes, but they are told with love and respect. We both also set out to come to the table in the ‘right’ frame of mind.
I’ve noticed that when I’m in a bad mood or my husband is, the energy is very different at the table. If I laugh and smile and set out to have a pleasant meal, even now with teens that has an impact on how the meal goes.
Any time there is conflict or arguing it makes it more difficult. And hey, I have more than one child, so I appreciate sometimes they are at each other and it’s miserable. However, setting expectations and continually working on a pleasant atmosphere does work.
6. Attention. Most children like to have the attention of their parents so building positive interactions at the table helps make it a nice place to come to.
For food anxious children, or those who are more generally anxious, then having attention can be uncomfortable. In this situation it’s making a child feel an important part of the meal without focusing unwelcome attention on them.
7. They can learn. Whether at preschool or school, children will be expected to eat in a certain place, at a certain time and in specific ways. They can learn to do this. Which means they are also able to do it at home. Again, it’s a process.
8. Build on success. Setting realistic expectations is important for us as well. If we have a hyper-active child who is not used to sitting at the table it will be an ongoing process to build habits.
Perhaps we start with them sitting for 2 minutes, then the following week extending it to 3 minutes. Of course, bearing in mind that disasters on certain days in the beginning stages are probably to be expected Gradual progress is often easier for them and for us.
If they are not sitting at the table at the moment it’s a new skill so takes time, repetition, and effort. Don’t think of how long it may take, think of the end result!
9. Practice. Build positive associations around sitting at the table. Doing this gives our child the chance to a) get used to sitting and b) feel more comfortable being there.
The age of our child will determine what strategy is effective. Perhaps it’s reading a book, cuddling over a puzzle, or eating a surprise ice cream at the table at a time away from dinner.
10. Anchor. We are the anchor that makes this all work. If we are 100% present and looking for ways to make the family table a part of family routines, it will work.
It can also be really useful to define what our goal is for the family meal. If it’s about ‘getting’ someone to eat the broccoli, it is going to be difficult to create a pleasant atmosphere. Perhaps the broccoli learning is best done at another time.
If our child is food anxious the family meal table can be filled with fear inducing experiences. Finding ways to reduce those is critical:
i) Making sure there is something at the table they are able to eat
ii) Supporting them as best as possible around concerns – like food smells.
iii) Taking the pressure off to try/eat foods that are not in their current comfort zone.
iv) Not putting them in the spotlight.
v) Focusing on the relationship not the food.
vi) Not having conflict at the table.
If you would like extra support around this, please get in touch for a no-obligation initial consultation: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2022-07
Judith, MA Cantab, 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/