Why is family mealtime such mayhem?

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  • By Whitney Hussain

    You’re a full-time professional with a toddler and a school-aged child. Your toddler is a picky eater who hates trying new foods while your school-aged child goes through weekly food jags eating only a few foods over and over again. Every week you struggle with food preparation.  It’s tough trying to make meals that fit everyone’s preferences especially with no one agreeing on what they like!
    Does this sound like you? Many parents are dealing with meal mayhem in their daily routines. All you want is the best for your child, and to help them  develop good eating habits. Picky eating and food jag habits are actually very common. So try not to fret about these habits, as long as your child is following a healthy growth curve – ask your family doctor or dietitian to help you monitor their growth. In the meantime, follow these simple steps to get mealtimes back on track.

    Spot the problem

    • “I wish mealtimes were less chaotic and more enjoyable.”
    • “All I want is my kiddo to have a balanced diet and to eat a variety of foods.”
    • “I wonder if my child is meeting their nutritional needs with these darn food jags and picky eating.”
    • “How can I make meals that will please everyone?!”

    Many parents are probably dealing with these concerns … and more! What’s your main meal problem?

    Get the facts

    Children are typically able to self regulate the amount of energy they consume. What they eat on a day-to-day basis will vary based on their appetite, fatigue, activity level and growth, and that’s normal. But here are some strategies to help you cope with a picky eater:

    • Share the responsibility for food. Parents and children have different jobs at meals. As a parent, your role is to determine what food is served, when it is served and where it is served. This means setting scheduled meal and snack times to help develop hunger cues around those times of day and eating together as a family whenever possible in a positive and undistracted environment. It is also important to prepare one meal as a family (not multiple meals based on each child’s preference) – your child will not learn to eat a variety of food if you only serve what they like. A child’s job is to determine if they want to eat and how much they want to eat. It may sound tough but your child knows when they are hungry or full.
    • Expose your child to a variety of foods. Repeated exposure to food means more than just presenting the same new foods one or two times. It can take up to 15 positive experiences before a child is willing to try something new. To succeed, offer a variety of foods in small amounts alongside familiar foods.
    • Avoid pressure, praise, rewards or punishment. Pressuring children to eat certain foods and making the mealtime experience stressful is an ineffective strategy. Pressuring a child can cause them to eat too much or too little due to negative stressors at mealtimes. This can impact a child by causing them to ignore their natural hunger and satiety cues which, in turn, reduces their ability to regulate their own food intake. It can also increase their dislike of some foods and increase their picky eating habits.
    • Get kids involved with their meal. It helps to get children involved with grocery shopping, to get them hands-on in the kitchen during meal preparation (check out our kid-friendly healthy snack recipe below), or even allow them to pack their own lunches. Their involvement in the food they eat can help increase the variety of foods they are willing to eat.

    Seek support

    Have you tried these strategies but are still struggling with your picky eater? Or maybe you have a child with other medical conditions and are unsure if those are the causes of your child’s behaviour towards food? Or maybe you’re noticing that your child is not meeting their nutritional needs and missing out on whole food groups? It might be time for professional advice from your family doctor or registered dietitian. There are many dietitians who specialize in pediatrics and who can help you and your child work through these nutrition struggles. Dietitians of Canada’s “Find a Dietitian” program can help you find a dietitian in your area. ( Fraser Health)

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