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Written by Lavinia
Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant
14 July 2020

No more mealtime battles

Although this is unrelated to sleep, it is such a hot topic amongst parents that I thought I would do a post on it.

Perhaps this scenario rings a bell: You prepare a nice, healthy breakfast for your child, they sit down in front of it, make a face, and declare that they are not hungry (at least not for the food you have prepared for them). After some gentle prodding from you and more denial from them, you both start to grow impatient and one of you loses it. Finally, you give in and give them whatever they are willing to eat because it is better than them skipping a meal completely.

Or perhaps you hold your ground and decline to provide them with their chosen breakfast option in the hope that they will ultimately become hungry enough to concede. They start pleading for a glass of milk and crackers half an hour later, and the fight goes on until your child loses it and you're at your wits' end.

The conundrum is that while you don't want your child to go hungry, you also don't want them having food lacking in nutrition. You also don't want them having any negative association with mealtime.

Whilst I am neither a child psychologist nor a dietitian, but I can tell you what has worked for me and many of the families I've worked with.

  1. Stagger meal-times. Toddlers go through a peculiar growth stage where they become high-output machines with limited fuel tanks. To put it another way, they have a lot of energy and are quite active, but their stomachs are still too small to carry enough food to keep them satisfied for very long. I like to provide a meal or a snack every two hours as a result. Prepare breakfast for them when they awaken, and then provide a snack for them two hours later. 2 hours later, it's lunchtime, and then another snack at 2pm and 4pm, and dinner at 6pm. What matters is that there is enough interval of time between each meal, to allow for your child to have enough appetite at meal time. Try not to provide food in the interim between those two hours, especially chips/treats.  As  if you do, your children may eat less at breakfast time holding out to get their favourite treats.

2.  Know that your job is not to decide how much your child eats. We have little practical power to control how much our kids eat. Kids ultimately have the power in this situation because we can't actually force them to eat.  Your job is to putting together meals with nutritional value, and setting eating times. You should let your youngster decide what they eat and how much of it they want to consume.

3. Provide options. I advise you to provide at least three options for each meal and snack. Small and straightforward options are acceptable as long as they are reasonably healthy and varied. You might serve cheese, sliced bananas, and peanut butter toast for breakfast. Tell your child that those are their alternatives and that they are free to eat as much or as little of what is placed in front of them.

Let your child handle the rest.

You've established a schedule and given your child some options; now it's up to them to decide what to do with the remaining time. You will be okay if kids want to eat only their rice or pasta and skip the vegetables. You're going to be fine with it if they only eat one bite of the meat and two bites of the vegetables. It is entirely up to them if they choose to eat their broccoli with chopsticks and mashed potatoes on top of it. Giving kids control over their diet can greatly reduce tension for everyone at the table and make mealtimes a much more enjoyable experience.

4. Don't give up on serving a particular food. Toddlers often make their minds up about a particular food before trying it. Before even putting it into their mouths, they have declared that they do not like it. Until they become accustomed to a new food, first via their eyes and then through smell, toddlers rarely accept it. Don't give up on anything until you've placed it on the table at least five or six times because they won't be inclined to try anything until they've grown accustomed to it being there. Even if your child initially seems disgusted by it, it can simply take a little acclimation before they're willing to give it a try.

5. Model the right behaviours.  A positive attitude can permeate your home's food-related activities if you put out the time and effort to prepare wholesome, delectable meals and prioritise spending quality family time at the table. They will also notice it if you see eating as little more than fuel, stopping to refuel in between the "essential" aspects of life.

I'm not arguing that you should never plan a trip to a McD's drive-through. There is definitely a place for quick and simple meals, but this is ideally a pleasure rather than something you turn to when cooking for your family is a hassle.

To summarise, set a schedule, persevere while your child is getting used to the unfamiliar, be repetitive, create positive associations and model the desired behaviours yourself. Which is similar the advice I give on getting babies sleeping well too. In both eating and sleeping, instead of getting frustrated or yelling at them, we would rather lead them in direction we would like them to go.

Article written by Lavinia
Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant
Based in Singapore
Trained in the Sleep Sense Program

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