There's no doubt that mealtimes with young kids are chaotic. I often brace myself before we sit down to dinner, knowing that frustrating things will happen - my son might reject some or all of the foods that I've served, veggies might not get eaten, my daughter might throw something off her tray or there might be a spill or two to clean up.
Even though mealtimes are rarely peaceful when you're in the "trenches" of parenthood, family meals are still imperative to creating healthy eating habits, bonding as a family, and nurturing your kids' long-term relationship with food. To minimize mealtime battles and make meals as enjoyable and positive as possible for you and your family, I've sourced out some advice from the top picky eating experts around. They've taken the time to share their favourite phrases that they use with their own kids (and added some of my own in there) at the table.
Here are the top 15 transformative phrases to use with your fussy eaters at mealtime:
"It sounds like you're done. Listen to your tummy to make sure that it is happy and full, because the next eating time isn't until tomorrow at breakfast. "
Kids often declare that they are "done" after hardly touching their meal or after only a few bites. This may be because they are actually physically full for whatever reason, because they are distracted, because they don't like what was served, or because they want to go play. But because it should be their job to determine if and how much they eat at mealtime, we have to respect the fact that they are finished. At the same time, we want to remind them to "listen to their tummies" and give them plenty of warning as to when the next eating opportunity will be so that they can re-think their decision just in case.
"It's okay that you don't want to taste that food. Instead, you could touch it, feel it, or lick it to get to know it better."
It's not a good idea to pressure our kids to eat a particular food at mealtimes--it can actually make them more wary of it than they were before. Instead, take the pressure off by letting them know that it's okay not to taste or eat a food, but that they are free to explore it in other less scary ways, like touching, playing with, feeling, smushing, stacking, licking or smelling it (without being rude or disruptive). These are all positive steps towards eventually accepting a food.
"There is ___ (20, 15, 10, 5) minutes left on the timer for dinner tonight. Then the buzzer will go off and the kitchen will be closed until tomorrow at breakfast."
If you have a slow eater (takes 35- 45 minutes or longer to finish a meal), it might be a good idea to set a timer with a buzzer at mealtimes (with 15, 10, 5 minute warnings) so that kids can better learn to self-regulate their food intake (and have enough time to become hungry for the next meal or snack). Meals shouldn't take more than 20-30 minutes to finish, and setting a timer for chronically slow eaters is a good way to set a healthy boundary around timing for meals.
"You don't have to try it."
Sally Kuzemchuk, MS, RD of Real Mom Nutrition says "you don't have to try it" if her kids make a fuss over a new food. "I try to be as casual as possible. We don't have a one-bite rule in our house so they don't have to taste something if they don't want to" she says. Sally writes about why she's not a fan of the one bite rule in her blog post "Why I Don't Make My Kids Have Just One Bite." Here's Sally's Facebook page.
"It seems like you are finding it hard to sit still tonight. Do you need to get up and shake out your wiggles before you sit back down? Or should we try putting the stool under your feet so that you feel more stable?"
It's important to allow plenty of time before meals for active play and to "get wiggles out," but toddlers and preschoolers are often restless at the dinner table even on the most active days. Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD stresses the importance of putting something solid and steady under your child's feet during mealtimes. She writes on her blog "while eating is a priority for our bodies, there are two priorities that supersede eating: 1) breathing; and, 2) staying upright (i.e. not falling on our heads). When your child’s feet aren’t resting on something solid, their bodies are required to focus on not falling over. This takes away from the focus on the task of eating. Babies and young children under 3 years of age are still novice eaters and they need to pay full attention to the task of eating. By providing a solid footrest, you’re removing a big source of distraction."
"I understand that you would like more ___ (bread, pasta, rice etc.) but we need lots of different foods to grow and become strong--not just one. Before we have more bread, let's explore around the circle."
Kids should be allowed to have as much of one particular food as they want at a meal, even if it's just bread. The important thing is to always serve a variety of foods at meals, and encourage your child to explore each food before having more of their favourite. This could mean that she touches, licks, feels or tastes foods around her plate before having more of her favourite. More on this strategy here: Why you should get your kids to eat around the circle.
"I understand that you want a snack, but snacktime was over a while ago, and the kitchen will be open again at dinner time which is in ___ minutes (15, 20 etc.). What would you like to do until that time?" (give two to three options)
Allowing kids to "graze" between meals is a recipe for picky eating. It's our job as parents to set appropriate boundaries around timing of meals and snacks. Meals and snacks should be timed 2-4 hours a part depending on age. When your child requests a snack when it's not time yet, kindly respond by telling them that it's not time for a snack, but that there will be a future eating opportunity at __ time. I talk more about this in my post Why This Well-Meaning Habits is Enabling Your Picky Eater.
"You don't have to eat, but you do need to sit at the table. Mealtime is also about family time."
Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, Author and blogger over at Raise Healthy Eaters wrote a fantastic blog post about how powerful the words "you don't have to eat" are when it comes to picky eaters. She writes "When we make eating about the parent’s will versus the child’s will, the joy and connection of eating gets lost. Some parents may win the battle and feel good that their child eats the way they want them to eat, but deep down the child may be full of resentment, eating peas to please his parents and not because he enjoys eating them." Here is Maryann's facebook page.
"You can have your dessert with your meal, or afterwards. Your choice."
Caitlin Boudreau, MS, RD of Wee Nourish likes to give her toddler the choice of having dessert with his meal (alondside his other foods), or afterwards. She says "this one has been working well with our toddler. It takes "dessert" off a pedestal and allows him to make that decision." Here is Caitlin's facebook page.
"How can we make this food yummier for you?"
Sometimes all it takes is a dollop of ketchup, a bit of ranch dip, a sprinkling of cheese, or "red confetti" (a few craisins) to make a food taste yummier.
"This is sweet just like the strawberries you like; these are crisp and crunchy just like crackers; this is juicy like watermelon..."
Jill Castle, childhood nutrition expert, author and blogger over at Just The Right Byte says "I always highlighted the qualities of the food that were familiar to my kids as a prep so they could anticipate what was coming. Kids like things to be predictable and if you can give them lots of info upfront it helps them ease in because it's somewhat familiar to a reference point they already have. Here is Jill's facebook page.
"Mmmmm. I forgot how much I love butternut squash..."
Instead of saying "why don't you try a bite of this butternut squash," or "you love butternut squash," model healthy eating by eating it yourself and expressing pleasure (without being too over the top). When kids see that you enjoy eating certain foods without feeling pressure to eat it themselves, they will be more open to trying it (whether it's now or in the future). It makes that food normal and more safe for them to eventually try.
"It sound like you're hungry. Dinner will be ready in 10 minutes, but there is a veggie tray and dip sitting on the table if you'd like to nibble beforehand. "
I recently wrote about the fact that kids are more likely to eat their veggies if those veggies don't have to compete with other "yummier" foods on their plate at mealtime. This is why I put a veggie tray with dip out before dinner almost nightly--the kids nibble away before dinner, which takes the pressure off to eat lots of veggies at mealtime (even though I still include veggies at dinner), and keeps them busy while I prep.
"It's okay, you don't have to like everything or food xyz, but great job for trying it."
By praising your child for being brave and trying a new food, you're giving him the confidence to continue exploring it, pressure-free (note: this is quite different from praising your child for EATING a food, which isn't the best idea). This way, you're praising the fact that he's being brave and adventuresome, not that he's eating a particular food.
Katie Serbinski, MS, RD shared this phrase and says, "This lets my son know I'm not upset with him for not liking a food and that ultimately I want him to have control over his feelings/attitudes at mealtimes (and that I respect his choice). It doesn't mean I won't try serving it again, but I'm not forcing him to eat it." Katie is founder of www.MomToMomNutriton.com and shares her latest posts and kid's nutrition advice on her Facebook Page.
What about you? Do you have a favourite mealtime phrase that works like a charm at your table?
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