It’s mealtime. Are you excited or stressed about this fact? When my daughter was an infant, I dreaded bottle feedings. She had terrible reflux and I never knew if she would have a good feeding, an ok feeding, or a terrible feeding. Usually it was the latter. I just wanted her to take the whole bottle so she could gain weight. That’s not so hard, right?
When she moved to spoon feeding, her reflux was better but mealtime time was still a challenge. As a mom, we worry…it’s in the job description. A stressed mommy does not improve mealtimes either I have learned. When your child won’t eat what you put on his plate and you are concerned about weight gain, it is easy to get lost in the struggle. Here are some mistakes to avoid:
- Large bites – it is easy to overfill the spoon or encourage bites that are too big. When you know your child is only going to eat 10 bites, you want them to be the biggest bites possible for maximum calories. However, this can perpetuate the problem resulting in a decreased number of bites. A child can only tolerate so much food in his/her mouth. Having a smaller bite is more easily managed by the tongue, cheeks and other muscles in the mouth. Smaller bites will result in less stress for your child. Less stress during mealtime is the goal.
- Eating on demand – it is easy to give food to your child anytime of day to increase calorie intake. However, this causes your child to never really know hunger. When you sit down to eat a meal, your child will not be hungry. A lack of hunger results in decreased interest in meal times and trying new foods. This also results in your child controlling when meals happen rather than you deciding when it’s time to eat.
- Force feeding – forcing your child to eat what they are refusing will not make them want to eat more of it. Force feeding can result in your child associating mealtime with stress and anxiety.
- Bribing with dessert – telling your child he can have his dessert when his plate is clear sends the message that dessert is the better food making the new food seem bad. This also encourages your child to ignore hunger queues and eat until the plate is empty rather than eating until he is full. (This is not to be confused with using dessert as a reward. If your child is successful with a new food and is rewarded with a small dessert, that is different)
- Starting with favorite foods – if you want your child to increase calories, of course you give them the foods they like. But if they are full on those foods, they will not be ready to try a new food. Start with the new food while they are hungry. Encourage 1 or 2 tastes of the new food before giving them the rest of their food. For example, my son LOVES milk and french fries. If I give him milk and french fries before chicken nuggets, he will NEVER eat a bite of his nuggets and I have just set him up for max refusal behaviors. However, if I give him a chicken nugget and tell him he gets his french fries and milk when he is done with that nugget, he will magically eat that chicken nugget with a lot less refusal behaviors. Over time, he has learned to like chicken nuggets. Now, if I place all 3 foods in front of him, they all 3 magically disappear. Just so you know, this did not happen over night. It took several months of consistently giving him the food in this order and consistently providing verbal reinforcement for eating the chicken nugget.
Here are some things to consider implementing:
- Consistent schedule – find a consistent sleeping and eating schedule for your child. When a child has structure and knows what to expect in his/her day, your child will tolerate meal/snack time better.
- Maintain role responsibilities – keep in mind who is responsible for the different parts of mealtime. A parent/caregiver is responsible for what is being presented, when it is presented, and how it is being presented. A child is responsible for how much he/she is going to eat. This also means do NOT be a short order cook. Making 5 different meals for 5 people in your family is time consuming and does not encourage positive mealtime practices. When dinner is ready, put a little bit of everything on your child’s plate. Let your child decide how much they eat. If your child eats all of one item and asks for more, remind him he can have more when he eats the other items on his plate.
- Serve small portions – by serving smaller portions, your child is more likely to experience success with mealtime and potentially ask for more food independently.
- Ignore negative behaviors – don’t let negative behaviors (ex. pushing food on the floor, swiping at the spoon, throwing up, etc.) end a meal. Teach your child that you will listen to their queues about what they like and don’t like, but having a tantrum, swiping at the spoon, or throwing up is not what ends a meal.
- Patiently explore new foods – everyone needs to experience new foods from all senses before they will like the food. When someone gives you a new food, what do you do? You smell it, you look at it, you may touch it with the tip of your fingers or tip of your tongue, etc. Do you ever just take a big bite and see what happens? NO! So our child isn’t going to do that either. Now picture a child who is already known to be “picky” or have sensory issues in other areas. They are going to need to explore the new food with all five senses before eating it. Give your child the opportunity to explore new foods before introducing it at meal time. Remember, eating starts well before the first bite happens!
As with anything, if you are concerned about picky eating affecting your child’s growth, consult your child’s doctor. Consider completing a 3-day food diary where you record what your child eats, how much your child eats, and when your child eats it. This will help determine if there is a problem and what might be causing it.
If additional calories are needed for your child’s growth, a dietician can be consulted to assist with loading foods with additional calories. An example could be adding sour cream to mashed potatoes. This allows for extra calories without increasing volume. But forcing your child to eat more volume is not going to equal more calories. Encouraging your child to have success with meals and listening to their queues will result in happier meals and ultimately, more volume.
If you find yourself experiencing this struggle on a regular basis with your child, feel free to contact me for a free phone consultation at 214-232-1426. I can help get the right resources in your hand!