Mealtimes should be a time to connect as a family and fuel our bodies, but are they always? During my clinical work, I saw every feeding issue you could possibly imagine, from toddlers all the way to adulthood. Once I left my job to stay at home with my daughters, I thought “This will be smooth sailing,” which I now laugh at myself for thinking.
One HUGE misconception about having preemies is that all preemie-related issues are resolved by the time you leave the NICU. While my daughters had to learn to do quite a bit before graduating (breath, swallow, and maintain body temperature,) there were chronic issues that followed us home. Eating and digesting did not come easy for Lani and Libby. They both suffered from damage to the esophagus as a result of severe acid reflux, and they both continue to be allergic to lactose. They also could not remove gas from their bodies, without assistance, until they were about 6 months old, so needless to say, eating became aversive.
When our girls graduated from their GI specialist at 9 months old, we finally felt they were ready to be introduced to solids. At that time, we dealt with food refusal, fake eating (pocketing food and then spitting it out when unsupervised,) voluntary vomiting, food stuffing, and tantrums to be removed from the table. All of these issues are completely understandable, I would do the same if previously every single meal felt like an attack on my body, and I had no way to communicate that to anyone. However, my husband and I knew that we needed to set boundaries so that these issues didn’t turn into habits. We know that the peak season of tantrums is not yet upon us, but building healthy habits from the start is very important to us. Flash forward, we now have two toddlers who LOVE veggies and protein, and they are very adventurous eaters! Meal times went from all of us crying to our favorite times of the day, and they are always chalk full of laughter!
So here is the game plan we used and our current “table rules” we follow today:
- Tantrums will never work to be removed from the table: We all sit together as a family and enjoy our meals. If one of my children is no longer wanting to eat, we provide them with some toys and make sure to keep them engaged. Our meals are not only for conversation, we also have dance parties or sing their favorite songs, so engagement in these activities is not unfair to ask of them. This rule prevents rewarding them for crying when they are simply a little bit bored, or they don’t like their food options and are testing us.Even when the meal is wrapping up, crying does not work. We prompt them to sign “All done” without crying and then we quickly remove them from their high chairs. This gives them an alternative behavior to utilize, instead of tantruming, to get to the same outcome of leaving the high chair.We ALWAYS honor any time they tell us nicely that they are “All done.” Even as early as 10 months old, my daughters quickly learned that tantrums don’t work, and they have since stopped throwing them…for the most part!
- You never have to finish your plate, but you do have to try everything once:
This rule is super easy to model if you fill your plate with the same things you are asking your child to eat. We talk to them about what each thing on their plate is, and then model taking a bite. Children love to imitate, especially when we reward them after with lots of praise for taking bites of new things. Added bonus, I also have become a much healthier eater now that I am mindful about the fact that I will be modeling mealtime habits for my children.
- You can have other veggie or protein options, but you have to finish those before you get any more carbs or sugars (fruits): Think about it this way, if you had NO concept about calories, processed foods, or how important it is to eat to really fuel your body, and I offered you PIZZA or BROCCOLI, which would you want to eat? We cannot let our kids completely run their own diets, it may prevent some tantrums now, but that creates way more issues down the road. Offer choices between healthy alternatives, or require them to eat the healthy options before gaining access to treats.
- Avoid empty threats or getting frustrated: This is a rule for Mom and Dad. Do not use empty threats to regain control. Example: “If you don’t do ____, then you will go to bed without eating!” We simply cannot withhold basic needs, like food or water, from our children, and they know that. So all that really does is invite them into a power struggle, and they will win. What we CAN honor is an example like this “First, take 2 more bites of veggies, then you can have some puffs.”
Most importantly, do not get frustrated. Easier said than done, I know that, but it honestly does not help anything. If you have a child who is already upset about mealtime, yelling or showing your anger will only make it worse. Calmly restate the rule/action you want them to take, but do not get caught up in their tantrum by feeling the need to get louder. Wait them out, then calmly restate the expectation.
DISCLAIMER: We try to be super consistent, but we are also mindful of new experiences for our girls. For example, I know that one of my daughters does not like new things until she has had a chance to observe them. I learned this the hard way by putting her into a high chair as soon as we arrived at a restaurant one day. Instead of holding hard and fast to our “No tantruming to be removed rule,” I took her out, and let her take her time to explore the high chair first. She recovered quickly, and then she sat in it without complaint for the entire rest of the meal. So be consistent, but also be realistic. It is okay to lower your expectations a bit if you are doing something totally new, or if nap time totally failed and you know you are looking at exhaustion, not defiance.
Those are the top 4 that work for us, but I would love to hear what works best for you and your family! Every child is different, so our approach must also be different. If bad habits have already formed, that is okay! There is always room to reshape them into healthier habits. It is so tough, but I promise that mealtimes can be peaceful, healthy, and a time to reconnect.
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