6pm. And more often that not it is chaos.
Rarely does the witching hour pass in our house without some sort of disagreement over what I’ve served up for dinner (some days more emotional than others). I’ve started hating myself for how much I raise my voice at supper time (surely this is the least effective way to get my kid to sit at the table and eat her peas?!), so about a week ago I tried something new and I was shocked by the results.
I said, “Did you know that when Mummy was a little girl, I used to sit at supper time with Pa and Granny and my baby sister in our kitchen at a table we built ourselves?” It was kind of a throwaway comment (and a trip down memory lane), but my three-year-old was fascinated. “Reeeeally?”, she said. “How did you do that?” So I proceeded to tell her how my dad had made our family kitchen table in the workshop that was attached to his garage, and how he let my sister and me paint its legs white in our yard outside (mostly because, as handy as he is, he hates painting). This was not a particularly interesting story, but it had Annabel entranced (I think she was picturing her beloved Pa wielding a drill), and before I knew it, several forkfuls of her chicken casserole had passed her lips. Eureka!
So now, when we sit down for meals, we make it our “Little Girl Stories” or “Little Boys Stories” time, where I tell her snippets from my childhood or her dad’s. I can’t believe how much she likes hearing about things we did when we were her age, and how getting into this habit has transformed our meal times from fraught screaming matches to a sort of bonding ritual.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to run out of Little Girl Stories by this time next week, so in the interest of improving my understanding of why meal times are so hard and to get some more ideas to inspire my girls at meal times, I reached out to my network of mummy oracles (girlfriends, girlfriends, where would I be without you?). It turns out my friends have some great tips up their sleeves, and one of them put me in touch with Nicole Edwards, a dietitian who has a special interest in Paediatrics. She is the mother of three busy boys (I bow down!) and runs Little Eaters, her Private Practice in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Nicole says that food refusal is a normal part of a toddler’s growing up process, and that they usually develop a fear of new foods – called a neophobic response – from the age of 18 months to two years old.
So it’s not just my picker eaters – there is actually a name for it!
“I get many parents saying ‘…but my little darling used to eat mashed spinach all the time?!…why is she throwing it back at me now?!”, says Nicole. “The good news is that most children usually self-regulate the amount of food they eat so that they get enough for growth and development. Parents can help the situation by ensuring that toddlers are not having an excess fluid intake around meal times, as milk, juices or squash can suppress appetites. Toddlers also eat less if they are tired, distracted, anxious or feeling unwell. Eating with others definitely helps to increase their love of food and enjoyment of mealtimes so plan some fun ‘dinner-playdates’ with friends who have children of the same age.”
And what about some tried and tested tricks to replace my Little Girl Stories when I run out of them?
“My greatest success was introducing a wonderful chicken noodle ‘broth’ (Bronnie’s Chicken Noodle Soup) which I knew my boys would absolutely love – if they got it past their lips! Some lateral thinking was required… I dished up the soup in bowls, handed out chopsticks and spoons, and pulled up pictures online of children eating congees and noodles in China. We had a fabulous discussion about ‘foods from around the world’ and – voila! – chicken noodle soup is now one of their favourite meals.”
From a professional point of view, Nicole sees more than just typical picky eaters come through her Practice doors. She says that sometimes food refusal may be part of a bigger issue such as poor oral-motor skill development or a result of prolonged illnesses as a baby. In these cases, don’t battle on alone – it’s best to seek the help of a professional with feeding expertise.
For fun I asked my girlfriends to share some of their supper time tricks, and here are some of the surprising things they said:
I used to sing to Harry when he was little. Top of my repertoire was The Grand Old Duke of York, with actions (me marching up and down the hill). He thought it was hilarious and while he was distracted I could spoon some veg into his mouth.
– Claire, mum of Harry (3) and Lily (1)
To stop Emilio from insisting on watching the iPad every time we sat down for meals, we gather his beloved cars around us and invent a story around construction sites or (unfortunately) car accidents. Fireman Sam comes (his favorite TV character at the moment) for rescue with his ambulance team, and I tell him that fireman Sam doesn’t like it when he watches so much iPad whilst he is eating. Fireman Sam offers that he can watch an episode once he finishes his food. It’s blatant bribery, but it works…
– Sandra, mum of Emilio, 3
We use music and singing. Tonight I sang the days of the week song about 15 times. We always eat together and try to make it fun. We will often have a pasta party on the floor – the three of us with the two dogs hovering…. It’s complete chaos and I throw all the rules out the window, so maybe it’s not ideal, but we laugh and they eat! We talk about our food a lot and give it quirky names – Asparagus are AsparaGuys, beans are BeanGuys. I play with food. I make it fun. I never force anything – if they don’t eat it I don’t stress. I do find that if I challenge Amelie on how many peas she can fit into her mouth in one go I manage to encourage her to eat a LOT of peas!
– Antonia, mum of Amelie, 5 and Stella, 1.
We do role play. Vegetables become doggy treats when they are not the most enticing food group on the plate! I become mummy dog, Toby is baby dog and he must be a good doggy and perform tricks, before I feed him a “treat”. It sounds degrading but he loves the role play and the undivided attention he may not otherwise get! He could clear a plate of overcooked soggy withered veg (I tend to serve up!) with this game.
– Michelle, mum of Toby, 3