So now that you have all of your books ready and your meal all prepared, what do you do when your child completely rejects it and stands up and starts throwing the food at you? Has this ever happened to you? Well, I will admit that yes, it has happened to me and its something that I have been working on for many months that is always a work in progress. I really wanted to talk about challenging behaviors during this sacred time of the day because it is very easy to fall into a routine of bad behavior during meals which leads to frustration and stress for both the parent involved and other siblings. Although my dog does benefit heavily from this “throwing food” issue, my vet bills for her irritable bowel syndrome cause me some financial and emotional discomfort. I am going to discuss some strategies that have helped me in the past but I continue to learn from others and research on what I can do differently during mealtime to make things easier for everybody.
Make sure your children are hungry: This has been a very important tip that I do not often follow because I do love to stick to a certain time. Often when I wait till my kids are hungry we will often have a more successful meal. That said, I also don’t suggest waiting till the child is so hungry that they become frustrated and upset (which has also happened to me!). What I have found most helpful is getting the meal prepared and then once they talk about “needing a snack” or “wanting dinner”, I simply reheat. This way they can eat within 10 minutes versus having to wait for you to prepare which does take a long time!
Give Choices: I give choices during each meal. For example, I will ask “Do you want chicken nuggets or turkey?”. They would love for me to ask “Do you want a cookie or a lollipop?” but no such luck. Giving them a choice between two healthy meals will give them some sense of control of what they are eating. I suggest sticking to two choices because more than that can lead to way too much work for a parent and too many choices for your child.
Give a variety of familiar foods and one unfamiliar food: My son has a major comfort with Applegate Chicken Nuggets which I can fully support. However, I like to serve a variety of other foods with meals, such as vegetables and/or fruit. Often, if I give a familiar food (such as the chicken) with something unfamiliar I have more of a chance of him trying the less familiar food.
Offer food presented the way you would like to be served: I am not suggesting that you garnish with fresh herbs or put the food on your best china. What I mean is placing the food in a pretty and presentable manner on a child friendly plate. I have seen too many times food slabbed messy on a tray (or some other way) and then expecting the child to want to eat it. I do feel that if the food does not “look good” they may not want to eat it. How I always think of it is, serve food that you would like served to you. I also think that this will help in overall understanding and respect of food during mealtime for now and in the future.
Provide positive reinforcement as much as possible: This is also something I have to remind myself to do and keep doing. Be very specific when you reinforce. Like, “I love the way that you are eating your carrots” or “I love the way that you are using your fork”. This helps them understand exactly what they are doing right versus wrong. Although it may be tempting to say “Eat your food”, I have to bite my tongue sometimes and really focus on being as specific as possible. What seems to work well in my house is giving reinforcement to the child who is eating and sitting well. The other child will want the same reinforcement which helps everyone do the right thing. I feel strongly that no child should be force fed but encouraged in the right way. If your child is not eating, then give them reinforcement for sitting and listening to the book.
Make meals simple and easy to eat: Having foods that are difficult to eat with a utensil can cause frustration for both parent and child. I have learned this from a recent meal of spaghetti and meatballs. Spaghetti is a challenging food to get on a spoon. Even cut up, it can be challenging to maintain the food on the fork or spork. If you have a child with low frustration tolerance, this can be a very difficult meal and yes, the spaghetti and meatballs took me a very long time to clean up! I will often stick to pasta that is easily picked up with a utensil or can be a finger food. Whole wheat pasta rotini is very easy to be picked up with the utensil or a little hand. Sometimes, I will just serve cheese, crackers and fruit for a meal as well. My daughter loves dips but my son will often reject any dips so that may be a personal preference.
Make the child clean up their own mess when done intentionally: Although it is a lot easier to clean up the food yourself it is a good lesson to make the child pick up the mess that they made. If they had done it by accident that is one thing but when the mess is caused intentionally, I have tried to make it a habit to have the child pick up the mess and put it in the garbage or pick up the utensil if thrown. This also teaches other siblings the consequences of throwing food.
Eat your meal at the table with your child: Eating a similar meal can definitely help. As I have said earlier, eating a meal similar to what your child has can encourage them to eat their food. Eating a different meal can also be helpful because they may want to try your food which they might not have done if it was on their plate. This was how I got my son to eat the bean and barley soup that I made.
MeMoves: This is a program that combines music, movement and images to help the child engage in mind and body. This is a program that was originally created for a child with autism and/or a sensory integration disorder. I started using this program with the children that I currently see for therapy that have developmental disabilities. I loved the DVD so much that I bought it for myself and started using it with my children. I will often do MeMoves before mealtime which focuses them and calms them down before a meal. Each sequence is five minutes long or so and doesn’t require anything but your attendance and your participation. It even helps me calm down!
No snack an hour and a half before meal: I have tried to make it a rule not to have any snacks, juice or milk anytime after 10:30 (for lunch) and 3:30 (for dinner). This way you may be guaranteed that your child will be more hungry for their meals. If too many snacks are being eaten all morning or afternoon, your chance of a successful meal declines! Another tactic that I have used which works pretty well is taking the rest of the meal that they have not eaten and using it as a snack.
Take a break if needed: If your child still won’t eat after all of these strategies, consider that there may be other factors such as your child not feeling well or simply just being too tired to eat. If that does happen, put the meal back in the fridge and try again later.