7 Ways to Create a Calming Mealtime Environment With Young Children
Food, meal times & nutrition is without a doubt one of the biggest struggles I hear from parents. Most parents today were all but traumatized (or truly traumatized) around mealtime as children. You may have grown up with strict rules around food, power struggles with parents about what to eat, or parents insisting on you eating everything on your plate. All of which, can have absolutely devastating effects on an individuals relationship with food.
If you grew up in a family where mealtime was a kin to being force fed against your will, you may still be struggling with the effects today. You may have decided to make mealtime as freeing as possible when you decided to have children - no rules, no boundaries, eat what you want kind of thing.
Or maybe you followed in your parents footsteps and continued the power struggle with your children, even though it didn't exactly sit right with you.
And while that may have worked at first, as your children got older, you realized they weren't eating with your family, or they weren't eating much at all, or all they ate was junk food. Suddenly, here you are again, trying to do the opposite of what scared you, and still mealtime is stressful.
Most parents I talk to are concerned about how little their children eat, what they will & won't eat, how often they eat, or worried about instilling poor manners and mealtime behaviors. While there is a lot I have to say on this subject, I'll start with the basics.
Here are seven ways of instilling healthy mealtime behaviors:
1. Model the Behavior
Modeling is the most important tool we have as parents. If we don't model the behavior we want, it will always be a struggle. This goes for every area of parenting, and eating is no exception. If you want your child to eat something, make sure you are eating it too. If you want them to sit down for the entire meal without moving once or getting up (I don't advise this, by the way) then make sure YOU are also sitting down for the entire meal without getting up. If you want them to eat with their fork and use a napkin, then... well you get the point.
We often expect children to do things we aren't even willing to do (I dare you to count the amount of times you get up from the table during a meal, you'll be surprised). Just make sure you are mindfully modeling, not using it as manipulation.
2. Give Choices
How would you feel if you had to eat everything someone gave you when you had no choice? I'm pretty sure you probably already understand that feeling because it was most likely done to you when you were a child. And I can almost be certain that it didn't feel good to you then, and also that it doesn't feel good to your kids now.
Choice is an extremely important basic human right. It's integral to development, connection, building relationships and learning to trust ourselves. Giving our children choices is paramount in parenting. It allows us to find out more about our children's preferences, while giving them ownership over their bodies and their experiences. And most importantly, it allows them to be fully human.
3. Get Them Involved
Taking ownership over their health and food choices is much easier when you get your children involved in all aspects of the meal process. This can look like: encouraging them to pick out a new fruit at the grocery store, gardening with your children and having them pick and taste fresh foods, having them help you make dinner or snacks when safe, or allowing them to get the plates and silverware for dinner.
4. But Give Them Space
There is a lot of parental anxiety around the meal table. Many parents feel they must be on top of their children's food intake with constant questions about how they like their food, what they are eating, and insisting they try something.
This actually does the opposite of what you want. Instead of helping your child to eat, it causes them anxiety and maybe even makes them want to rebel. Instead, trust your child to eat what they know their body needs and try to keep mealtime talk about things other than food. Use it to connect with your children instead of policing what's going in their mouth.
5. Shame Free Zone
"There are kids starving in India". "If you don't eat that, I'm going to". "Look how good he's eating." "Don't be rude to your mother, eat your dinner". There is one sure fire way to make mealtime unhealthy (and even traumatic), and that's with shame. Shame is the birthplace of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and addictions, and the old parenting narrative serves it up to our children in large doses, especially at meal time.
When we are in shame, we don't feel loved or understood by the ones shaming us. And a natural reaction to feeling misunderstood and not cared about, is hurt. Hurt unexpressed will turn to anger, that becomes rebellion. If you have a child who is flat out rebellious around mealtime, they may not be feeling seen & heard. Tips #1 & #2 are very important to start with, but taking the shame off the table (and apologizing for the times you used it) will go even farther.
6. Use Gentle Boundaries
Having boundaries around meals may seem like the same stifling mealtimes of your youth. But that is a very incomplete belief about boundaries. Boundaries are absolutely integral to healthy development. Without boundaries, most children feel anxious, confused, and frustrated. Boundaries give them a safe place to be, a haven of consistency and comfort. Boundaries do not need to be strict versions of a power play, they are much more effective if they are flexible and reasonable. (Confused about boundaries? This will help.)
7. Check Your Expectations
If you've done everything on the list and you are still struggling with mealtimes, before looking for more outside help, I'd encourage you to first check your expectations. It's always important to look inward when we are struggling with any issue in life. How are we playing into the struggle? What limiting beliefs or triggers are we allowing to effect our response to our children?
Many times I find parents have extremely unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate expectations for their child's behavior around mealtimes. This comes from a society that has convinced us children are supposed to look and act like adults, even though they do not have the learned experience or development of adults.
For example, expecting a toddler to sit still or stay at the table throughout a 30 minute meal is not appropriate for their development, they literally don't have the attention span. Yet, it is expected of toddlers in mainstream society, and then they are often punished for acting exactly as a toddler should.
Awareness Over Perfection
The goal is to make meals an enjoyable, comfortable, and consistent time for your family. How you do that is really up to you. I've given you 7 ways to start with, but you need to find what works best for your family. This isn't about following all of my ideas to a T, it's about gaining some awareness about your children's behaviors and yourself and then adjusting accordingly. Remember to give yourself, your partner, and your children lots of grace during this transition.
Tell Your Story
Did any of these tips work for your family? What worked and what didn't? Did your mealtimes shift from chaotic to calm? What did that look like for your family? Tell me in the comments.