Creating Happier Mealtimes with Picky or Sensory-Challenged Eaters

You have a vision as a parent of children that make healthy choices as they smile at you across the table – in reality, mealtimes are fraught with negotiating and arguing and always end in a huff. There is another way. Even a happier way.  How do you set the stage for happy and healthy mealtimes, at your home?

Master Parenting - creating happier mealtimes

First off, let’s assume what you are doing right now isn’t working. You beg and yell and they gag on the broccoli. They hoard goodies in their room or hold out for dessert. And you REALLY don’t enjoy your meal. Perhaps,  you are a short-order cook for your picky eater making them a separate meal. Oh, dear!

Second, let’s just assume that your child is special-needs, has a sensory issue or even comes from hard places and was adopted from an orphanage that taught them to hoard or stuff. For this article, let’s assume that your child is the worst-case scenario.

Third, let’s also assume your fantasy is what ALL parents want. And you should know that trust and ritual and closeness are built around the dinner table. Conversation and rituals around the table heal and create closeness that can happen at any age -for your toddler or your teen. Knowing that someone will feed you when you are hungry develops trust. Knowing that they love you and want to listen develops self-esteem. You trusting them to make good choices creates an independent eater. I know what you are thinking, “but I want them to eat broccoli and whole-grain bread!” This can happen when you are offering the “right” choices, but it won’t happen with badgering or nagging. In fact, the more you fight with your child about eating, the bigger the challenges it creates. In fact, they may stop listening to their body’s cues for being full or even what tastes good if it becomes too much of a fight. When you force feed them, it becomes harder for them to eat the right amount for health or to ever eat a variety. How to fix this battleground? Here are your tips to start having healthy eaters and happier mealtimes:

  1. Establish family meals, daily, if possible
  2. Serve reliable and routine snacks, every 2-4 hours. When children KNOW they will be fed, it helps heal anxiety (hoarding behaviors, included). And you serving regular meals and snacks vs grazing all day automatically creates healthier eating habits because you are giving the choices.
  3. Serve food family style. If you plate the food, they start negotiating. If they get to choose, they enjoy.
  4. Serve a variety of food in different ways. The best way to introduce many new foods is to make sure that each meal has a safe, familiar food. Offering different foods multiple times in a multiple ways. You may have heard that it takes 10 times of seeing a food to eat and enjoy it. But older children, or sensory-sensitive children, have to see a food many more times than that.
  5. Let them choose how much to eat. This is a source of frustration and concern for most parents because we want to control portions and have them eat “enough” and we want them to eat their broccoli. Still, let them choose.
  6. Serve foods according to their developmental stage. Smaller pieces. Separate ingredients. No noodle soup. Etc. Consider where the child has difficulties and avoid that food until the battle is gone, then introduce it, again.
  7. Reassure with verbally-comforting statements. “There will always be enough.” “You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to.”
  8. Lastly and most importantly  – smile and avoid the power struggles. It always backfires. You always lose and they always lose, too.

If you use these strategies with a lot of Descriptive Praise and Empathy for what they don’t like, mealtimes will start to become healthier and happier and YOU might start enjoying your meal, too.