Mealtime can be stressful if you're a parent of a toddler. Here are six tips to help tame your child at dinnertime and make mealtimes enjoyable again:
1. It is the parent's job to offer healthy food options, and it is the child's job to choose what and how much he will eat.
As difficult as it may be, this is where parents have to realize that they can't control how much or whether or not their kids eat. Many parents worry that their kids will not get the proper nutrition or will wake up hungry if they don't eat a full meal. Remember that kids will take in exactly what they need. Many pediatricians will say that it's more important to look at how kids eat over the course of a week versus just one or two days. Take the pressure off yourself.
For some kids, it can take 10 times of being exposed to a new food before a child will try it. To avoid a power struggle, simply and calmly offer healthy food items and let your child take it from there, difficult as that may be. Also, make sure your child is well hydrated throughout the day. Resist the urge to beg, plead or bribe your child to eat because that will only fuel a power struggle.
2. Be careful of becoming a short-order cook.
If your child doesn't want to eat what you have prepared don't make a separate meal. Instead, have two standard choices available, such as fruit or yogurt/cheese. Pre-cut the fruit or choose something that is handheld so mealtime isn't disturbed for everyone else. When your kids get older and they don't want what is being served, they can have the option of making their own meal (peanut butter and jelly, anyone?). If necessary, you can tell your child, "I'm sorry to hear you don't like what is being served. Your options are fruit or yogurt. You can decide."
3. Don't ban "treats" or dessert.
When we deny our kids treats, the treats end up becoming the "forbidden foods," which makes them all the more desirable. Instead, we want to promote a healthy relationship with food. Rather than thinking in terms of "good" foods and "bad" foods, it's important to think in terms of balance, moderation and portion control. So, consider allowing a small treat during the day, like after school, or if you prefer, with a meal or after a meal. Examples include a few M&M's, a few chocolate chips or a piece of candy. Don't feel that your kids have to finish what's on their plate in order to have dessert. This sets up a vicious cycle where kids view dessert as the forbidden food and rush through their meals to attain it. When treats and dessert aren't seen as off limits, they lose their power. Of course, you have control over when and what treats your kids can have, but you may want to consider asking your child when he would like to have his treat. When he's had his "allowance" for the day, he'll know he can have another treat tomorrow. When kids are allowed to have special foods, their desire for them tends to decrease.
4. Kids model what they see.
Kids learn by example, so make sure you have a variety of healthy options on your plate. Model how fun it is to try new foods and express how enjoyable meals can be. Simply enjoy your food without putting pressure on your child to enjoy his.
5. Try finding out what your child is willing to eat.
Sit down with your child at a time when things are calm. Enlist his help in making a list of the foods he is willing to eat and consider setting up a meal chart with him. For example, for each day of the week, have your child choose one of the items on the list that he would like to eat and at which mealtime. Using pictures of the foods can be helpful. Getting kids involved in the creation of routines is a respectful approach that models problem-solving and decision making, while increasing the likelihood of gaining cooperation.
6. Get kids involved in the process of cooking and meal preparation.
Our kids are always looking for ways to belong, feel significant and in control. What better way to help meet these needs then by enlisting their help in the kitchen? Take your child to the grocery store with you. Go to the produce area and point out all of the vibrant colors. Pick up a vegetable and ask him what he thinks it is. Talk about where it comes from and the amazing things that fruits and vegetables do for our bodies. Ask your child what he would like to help you make using the fruits and vegetables he sees. Get out a recipe book, preferably one with pictures, and give him some choices. Not only is this a way of educating your child, but it's a way to bond while choosing healthy meals and cooking together.
Above all, give your child the message that you love him unconditionally and trust that he will make healthy choices for himself when he's ready. It takes two to have a power struggle, so avoid accepting the invitation by trying the above suggestions.
Debbie Zeichner, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Parent Coach who has specialized in working with adults, children and families for more than 17 years. She is a parenting consultant for Adi, The Stay-Put Plate for Kids. She is a proud mother of two and resides in San Diego, Calif.