In many cases, these kids will not eat at all unless they are watching a device or playing with toys/books during feedings. These kids typically need distractions because they are anxious eaters or have sensory processing issues that make mealtimes a very unpleasant and difficult task. Parents often express guilt, remorse, and concern about their child’s need for distractions. Parents resort to distractions in order to “get the food in”, as they are in a place of genuine concern, because if they remove the distraction their child may not get enough calories to grow and thrive.
Here are three questions and answers that may be useful to you!
My child is a picky eater. What should I do to encourage her to try different foods?
The best strategy to prevent picky eating is for parents to model their own enjoyment of foods they are offering their kids at the dinner table. Serving food “family style” in bowls or platters placed on the table allows children to see the adults enjoying a food that the kids can just reach out and try.
The best professional advice I ever heard was from a nutritionist, Ellyn Satter who suggests that it is a parent’s job to decide what healthy food to serve, as well as when and where it’s going to be eaten. But, it is up to the child to decide whether and how much to eat.
In general, the less said about how much or how little is being eaten, the better. The worst strategy is for parents to pressure their kids to eat or to restrict foods. If you want your child to try new foods, you shouldn’t tell them they can’t have dessert unless they eat all their vegetables. Another common mistake is for parents to give up too easily if a child refuses a new food. Researchers have found that children may need eight to 15 offerings of new foods before they decide they like the food. No wonder so many children are deemed “picky eaters” when so many parents give up trying to interest a child in a novel food after one or two attempts.
My children are too young to sit still for long meals. How can I get them to stay put?
It’s important to keep your expectations realistic. Toddlers shouldn’t be expected to sit for more than 10 or 15 minutes, and some may be done in five minutes. Better to have a happy, short dinner that you can build on as your child matures, than to make dinner a time with a lot of rules and fights. Here are some strategies that have been helpful to families with young kids:
Make clear that “meal sitting” is different from “school sitting.” So, for example, everyone might wear PJs, or you might play music during the meal.
Give your kids ice pops made with fresh juice after they’ve eaten their meals: It will take young kids about five minutes to finish one pop.
Invite your child to stir a pot, crumble the cheese, set the timer or choose a menu from two choices offered. Having a hand in making the meal creates pride of ownership, and that may make them stay at the table longer.
Avoid having a revolving door at the dinner table. If your child wants to leave the table, allow this only once or twice. After two departures, the child should know that dinnertime is over. This is different from forcing a child to sit but takes away any positive reinforcement derived from leaving the table.
Present each part of the meal as a course, for example, peas as an appetizer, pasta with pesto sauce as the main course and orange slices for dessert. Maybe your child can help clear and bring on each course so that you are harnessing a child’s activity in the service of the meal. For example, “While you’re up, would you get the water pitcher?”
How do I keep my teenagers interested in family dinners, when there are so many activities pulling them away?
You may be surprised to learn that when teenagers are asked about the importance of family dinners, they rate them very high on their list of priorities. So, you should assume that your kids want to have dinner with you. If they don’t, start by asking what would make dinnertime more pleasant for them. Here are some strategies that have been helpful to other parents with teenagers:
Agree that dinner will be off limits for discussing conflicts—no talk about homework, whose turn it is to take out the trash, a recent D on a math quiz or how late the curfew should be on Friday night.
Offer to make a new meal based on your teen’s interests—if he is studying South African history or Indian literature, check out epicurious.com and search for recipes by country.
Invite your kid to make a course or part of the meal, particularly something fairly quick (but special and dramatic) that will elicit oohs and ahs from the rest of the family. Popovers, banana flambé, and fruit smoothies all do the trick.
Create a weekly dinner ritual when your kids’ friends are invited to dinner or to dessert. For example, on a tired Sunday night, friends could be invited to come over and make sundaes.
You might also ask your teen to choose music for you to listen to during dinner. This will also give you something to talk about that is likely of great interest to your child.
It's important for parents to focus on displaying healthy eating habits for their kids, and monitoring what kids are stuffing in their mouths. In a distracted eating environment, it becomes far more challenging to do so.