Updated: Oct 4, 2021
“If the home is a body, the table is the heart, the beating center, the sustainer of life and health.”
- Shauna Niequist
If you are struggling as a parent to help your kids make healthy choices and enjoy mealtime, read on because this post has lots of good strategies that focus on changing the atmosphere at the table over what is served. When we look at our picky eaters we usually try to come up with ways to serve foods that are appealing to them. We cut their fruits and veggies into cute shapes and we make sure we slice their nuggest horizontially instead of on the diagonal in hopes they entertain our efforts.
Have you ever thought that changing the way we approach mealtime over changing the foods we serve could lead to less picky eating? I know it sounds crazy, but bear with me here. Trying some of these strategies may take you out of your comfort zone at mealtime but your efforts will eventually pay off. Think of a place that you, as an adult, don't like being. If someone was to suddenly find a way to make that space more safe, calming and relaxing, would you be more willing to give it a try? I've mentioned this before, I hate the dentist....however, if I showed up and Dr. Pain had a massage chair waiting for me with a glass of wine and repeats of Friends playing above me, I'd be more willing to give it a try and I might even go more often.
Realistically, we can't always have dinner as a family or at the table but the idea of mealtime can be given a makeover so we all learn to relax. Think of the dinner table as the space your child wants to feel more comfortable at. What can you do to achieve that in your household?
Let them serve themselves
Try serving meals, family style. The kids get to choose what goes on their plate while everyone sits around and talks about their day. The key here is to do our best not to prompt or guide them. The first few times you try this they will probably stick to their staples and avoid trying new things. If we pressure them to try something new, this will no longer be a fun, safe way of serving dinner. Eventually as time goes on you can choose one item to start on their plate and they choose the rest. Or, you can ask them to pick a colour and then eat one thing that is that colour on the share plates. You can also play the game, dare at the table and take turns daring each other to eat things off the sharing plates or each other's plates. If you use humour, your kids will be invested. My kids love when we do this! I pretend that what I am being dared to eat is something I really don't want to. I make silly faces and slowly work myself up to lick the item and then eventually eat it. If they see us being silly but also modelling good habits, they will want to follow suite.
A lot can be said for a lovely child with beautiful table manners but sometimes we need to put manners aside and just have fun. They will eventually feel comfortable at mealtime and then we can work on the manners piece. You can play games at non eating times as well as at mealtime. My kids love spin the bottle (make a big circle of food items on the table with a bottle in the middle) and mystery foods as random games we play throughout the day. It is important to note that as you are starting to play these games with your picky eater, you should start by only using foods they know and like (or candy). This will earn their trust and allow you to become more adventurous in the future. For more info on how to play these games, see my previous blog post on fun, relaxed ways to get your eaters to try new things.
Prompts and Questions
One surefire way to help everyone relax at mealtime is to have a collection or set of prompts and questions on the table to help with conversation and fun. In the SHOP on the website you can download a list of over 100 prompts and questions that get your kids thinking and laughing while subconsciously picking away at the meal in front of them. It's truly cool to see your kids laughing and enjoying themselves while not even realizing they've just eaten a few peas off their plate. The prompts include, would you rather questions, dares, silly acts, preference questions, and fun facts. They are a lot of fun and a great way to get to know your kids better and vice versa. There are also a few blank templates to go with it so your kids can come up with some of their own silly prompts and questions to be used at the dinner table.
Give your meals silly names
When we meal plan, my kids love to pick one meal and give it a goofy name. When the meal is served, we make sure to present it with the name the kid has given it and give them the credit for the super cool name. They feel pride and investment in that meal and will be more likely to at least lick something on their plate. For example, I make a mushroom, cheese casserole once in awhile and my oldest son calls it Mills' Murdered Mushroom Mess. The meal does look quite messy and since we're plant-based, he likes to make jokes about us killing vegetables. My youngest is a little less inventive and has named my cauliflower roast, Fart. He gets a kick out of it and loves presenting, Fart to his brother and dad for dinner when we sit down.
There are so many ways to make mealtime fun and relaxed! Just think of how you would want the atmosphere to be in a situation where you don't feel super comfortable and go from there. If we change the way our kids experience mealtime it just might change the way our kids begin to experience food.
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