6 Proven Tips For Happier Mealtimes (from a Nutritionist)

By Penelope Henderson, MSc, RNutr/ 10/09/2023
a family of two parents and two young children enjoying their mealtime

One of the most stressful parts of feeding kids is at mealtimes. Mealtimes can be very stressful for the child and parent alike for all sorts of reasons. Its easy to lose will power, and get frustrated when they don’t eat what you have provided. However children will more likely happily tuck into meals when they have the right environment, opportunities, structure and role models to create those relaxed and happier mealtimes. 

I am going to share with you my top tips, which I use with my own kids and clients to create happier mealtimes and you can begin working on them straight away! Want to know what they are? then read on..

 

1. Exposure to new foods

Research has shown that children need to be exposed to a new food between 10 – 15 times before they will accept it as safe and comfortable in their diets. (2) Exposure to new foods means an increase in variety of foods and hopefully better nutrition. 

If you suddenly offer a new food for the first time at a mealtime then it can be quite scary or off putting for children when they don’t know what something is or they don’t like the look of this foreign vegetable. My tip would be to expose them to new foods outside of mealtimes as much as possible so when mealtimes happen they are already familiar with it and you are not creating an environment of fear of a new food at the table. 

Exposure can be done in a variety of ways and requires some persistence but believe me it pays off. 

Here are some ways to expose them to new foods;

  1. Offer small portions (it doesn’t have to be much). Then build it up when they are comfortable with it.
  2. Have the food near or on the plate. You can also try a separate plate (called a learning plate) so they foods are not touching. 
  3. Let them help you prepare foods or even just watch in the kitchen. 
  4. Try different food based play activities
  5. Expose them at different times and meals (try one day and then again a few days later or following week). 
two preschool children helping prepare food in the kitchen

In addition there are lots of fun ways to involve your child with food which can help. You may like to check out this blog on 6 steps to eating nutritious foo and ways to make it fun 

2. Role model

a family enjoying food together and role modelling how to eat

Role models could be parents, other family members/caregivers or anyone who looks after children. As children learn by copying others in learning to eat also known as role play. This is the best way for children to learn to eat and enjoy eating when they are copying others. (3).

A study by Helen Hendy, Ph. D., studied preschoolers’ eating habits and found they were more likely to try mango when they saw another child taste it. (4). 

So having a taste of a new food is a start and with repeated tries they will hopefully learn to enjoy the new food. 

In order to do this, they need to have the opportunities to eat with others. By eating with your kids at mealtimes or by having peers eating together at nursery you’re letting them copy you or others.

If you’re providing and eating a variety of healthy foods in front of your child, then your child is likely to follow suit.

Role modelling and eating together brings other benefits too. The social aspects such as communication skills and bonding, table manners, using cutlery and so on. 

3. Consistency

Another mealtime must is being consistent with your rules around food and eating. Having a routine will help your child establish good eating habits. 

A analogue clock with a knife and fork either side

Having regular mealtimes and boundaries can help reduce anxiety before mealtimes. So you could let them know what food will be served and for how long

If you aim to have a routine of three meals and 2 – 3 snacks a day, this will provide consistency. It will also allow time for your child to be hungry between meals so they will hopefully eat.

Ideally have these mealtimes at the same time each day, same place and same table so that consistency is kept in place. 

4. No pressure

Happier times are created when the pressure is taken off. As a parent myself I found over the years that this is one of the hardest strategies to put into place. Resisting the urge to make even the tiniest comment about eating I have found so difficult. 

We usually mean well and don’t even realise these things are pressure. Common things we say are  ‘just try a bite’ or ‘have one try and see if you like it’ are actually forms of pressure. Other forms of pressure include coaxing, rewarding and forcing.You might like to check out this blog on 7 reasons why your child refuses to eat

How can i make mealtimes less stressful?

Simply serve up the food and place it on the table. Make no comments about it or how much they eat. You can comment on how much you are enjoying your food, what it tastes like but only make positive comments. 

By making comments on their eating it can shift the focus to them and become a power struggle between you and them which is when mealtime battles can take off. We want mealtimes to be happy and enjoyable, not battlegrounds. 

Being a happy eater is about eating foods because you want to and enjoying them.

If you’re getting your child to try new foods and they are enjoying them then you’re on the right track!. 

You can’t force or pressure your child to like and enjoy certain foods and lets face it there are some foods they are never going to enjoy. 

5. Serve family style

If you can serve family style which means eating together and the same meal it makes it so much easier for the cook to make just one meal. You’re also helping with role modelling by eating together as discussed earlier in this blog. 

If your child struggles with foods touching/mixed or likes plain foods you can also make the same meals as the rest of the family but separate out the foods. Eg, lay out vegetables separate from the pasta and sauce so they can help themselves to how much they want.

a family helping themselves to salad for a meal

6. Serve one new food with other accepted food

It can feel like constant rejection when you have a fussy eater and so frustrating when they reject lovely food you have spent time cooking. 

Serve one new food with foods they already eat then you know they are likely to eat something on the plate. This way they are becoming used to the look, smell and other sensory attributes of the new food and moving along the 6 steps to eating

You can also be more accommodating by offering a choice of the new food. This gives the child a little control which can help with trying a new food. 

For example whilst your planning meals offer them a choice of a new vegetable. You could say something like ‘would you like broccoli or spinach with your dinner’? 

a girl happily eating her salad

Raising a happy and healthy eater involves following the 6 mealtime tips I have given you. 

A consistent approach with all of them and not piling on the pressure will really help build happier families around mealtimes. 

However if you do find you need more support and reassurance then I have created an online course that dives deeper into these strategies along with 6 bonuses and email support. So check out Master Your Mealtimes online course to see happier mealtimes again. 

Or if you would like to get to work straight away then grab my free guide – 6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes

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MEET THE AUTHOR
Author Penelope Henderson

Hi I’m Penelope Henderson RNutr Registered Nutritionist specialising in children’s nutrition and responsive feeding therapy.

I am a mum of 2, with over 15 years of experience in nutrition. I support parents to feel confident in how and what to feed their child. I hope you find my recipes and nutrition posts useful, so you can enjoy stress free cooking and mealtimes.

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free guide to 6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes

6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes

This guide includes the 6 steps you can take to get your child eating better with more variety, reduce stress and create happier mealtimes.

Includes a meal planning guide and template with fun ways to get them to eat more.

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