An OT’s guide to easier mealtimes

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

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Parents ask me literally all the time - "what can I do to help my child be a better eater?". I think with along with sleep, it's one of the most anxiety-provoking topics for parents, regardless of where your child is at. You might be getting ready to start solids with your little one, you might have a "fussy" toddler, or you might have a 4 year old who hates everything you dish them up. From my experience it doesn't matter - these five tips will get you started on a good path.

So, without further ado... my top five mealtime tips are:

  1. Parent provides, child decides

  2. Same meal, same time

  3. Posture and positioning

  4. Structured mealtimes

  5. Play with your food

That's it. 5 tips. 17 words. I promise! But really, let me explain a little more...

Tip # 1: Parent provides, child decides

This is all based on Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility. If you want to nerd out, read this one page of advice. If you don't, I've summarised it for you:

  • You, as the parent, are responsible for what, where and when your child eats.

  • Your child is responsible for how much and whether they will eat the foods provided to them.

That's it. You can't force your child to eat (well technically you can but trust me, you don't want to), and they can't force you to give them foods that you don't want them to eat.

If as a parent, you are providing them with regular meals and snacks, catering to their skills as an eater (without catering to likes and dislikes), and showing them the lowdown of a family mealtime that is pleasant and pressure free, then you're doing your job. Yay!

Tip #2: Same meal, same time

I love this catch phrase, it's the best. Dr Kyla Smith, paediatric dietitian from Perth talks about it A LOT in her subscription based service Toddler Mealtimes and on her Instagram (@dr_kyla).

The idea behind "same meal, same time" is that you serve your child the same food that you're eating, at the same time that you're eating it! Now of course you would modify this somewhat if you're still feeding a 6-18 month old, but generally the concept is the same. Yes parents, this also means you might be eating part of your dinner at 5:30pm with the kids.

If your child sees you eating a food, they are naturally more inclined to trust the food and eat it themselves. Ever noticed they'll eat things off your plate that you wouldn't dream they'd eat off their own? Yeh. This is what I'm talking about.

If your child is a naturally anxious eater, this one is key. Up until the age of 3.5/4 years, a parent/caregiver with good attachment to the child is that child's absolute world. This means they mirror you, and watch oh-so-carefully to learn from you too. They need to see that you trust the food that you've offered to them, and what better way to do this than to eat it with them?

Tip # 3: Posture and positioning

As an occupational therapist, I have to be careful not to preach this one too hard, but here goes. Posture and positioning can be a game changer.

The body's number one priority believe it or not is not to eat, it's to breathe! Number two priority? Protect the brain!. I'll say that again. Protect the airway, protect the brain. Can you imagine how hard it is to do that when your child isn't positioned right?

For little ones just learning about solids, having a high chair that positions them so that their head is supported (not flopping from side to side, front to back), allows them to be at eye level with their feeding caregiver, and supports their arms and trunk to explore finger foods on their tray is SO important.

A little note on readiness and starting solids: Ideally your little one should be able to support themselves somewhat independently for the mealtime, but a highchair can still help. We definitely want to watch for signs of readiness because if you start your little one on solids before their body is ready you won't be off to a great start.

When choosing a high chair, you want to consider the following:

  • How it can grow and adapt with your child as their needs change

  • The ability for it to be pushed up to the family table when your child is ready

  • And let's be honest, how easy is the chair to clean?

Let's have a look at two of my favourite chairs:

Chair #1: The good old IKEA highchair

Pros: super easy to clean. Has a tray and buckle. Comes with attachments to support bub if they're a little smaller and need some support for their trunk. Would fit up to the family table as needed if you remove the tray. As affordable as hell. Winner!

Cons: little ability to grow and adapt with your child and no foot support! Ever sat at a bar stool and your feet didn't touch the ground/support bars on the stool? Not comfy, nor does it entice me to put my "protect the airway, protect the brain" to rest and eat. Particularly if I'm a toddler who relies on as many points of stabilisation and contact as possible to concentrate on something new.

Good news however is that you can buy attachable foot rests! NImble and Rest have a product called Footsi which attaches to your child's chair to provide them with that extra bit of support.

Chair #2: The Mocka Wooden Highchair

Pros: Relatively easy to clean, has a tray and buckle. Comes with cushioning for support. The seat and footrest are all adjustable, and the tray is removable so this chair can support your child during mealtimes until they are old enough to sit safely on an adult chair at the family table.

Cons: This one is a little bit more expensive (averaging around $130). But I'm all about cost per use - if your child sat in this for three main meals a day, from six months of age to 4 years, that works out to be about 3 cents per use, still pretty affordable in the long run!

Okay, I think that's enough preaching from the OT in me now. Moving on...

Tip # 4: Structured mealtimes

Structure and routine help a child's world make sense, be predictable and for them to understand what is expected of them. Structuring mealtimes gives your child the opportunity to sit down and eat what you're offering, five times a day. We're talking three main meals, and two snacks spread across the day. Typically with an hour and a half to two hours in between.

Structure helps with many things, but mainly; increasing predictability for an anxious child (increasing anxiety = increased adrenaline = decreased appetite), and helping your child to develop a hunger/full cycle and connection (ie. children who snack all day don't often know what it feels like to be hungry/thirsty and have an empty belly, so are confused about this feeling later in childhood).

Don't forget to involve your child in the mealtime routine and preparation (as appropriate to their age). Small tasks such as washing hands, washing vegetables and setting the table all help to prepare the child for the mealtime. Learning Towers are all the rage at the moment, and for good reason! Have your child up at the bench with you and talk about the foods you're about to offer them, it can make all the difference.

Tip # 5: Play with your food

I know, I know. When you see this are you imagining food flying across the room and a huge mess? Well it's not quite what I mean, so don't abandon me!

Children learn through their hands, eyes and ears. We know this and this is how we teach them. But how come it's different when it comes to learning to eat? Why do we put food down in front of them, or bring a spoon to their mouth and simply expect they'll know what to do with it?

Let me say it again, children learn through their hands, eyes and ears. This means they need to touch the food, watch you eat the food and examine it in all it's tiniest details, some children even need to hear what it might sound like, but they especially need to hear your encouragement.

Now when I say encouragement, I don't mean emotional blackmail. "Please try this for Mummy, she spent all afternoon cooking it!" is not going to help much with the whole 'pressure free eating' I mentioned earlier. Giving the food a try yourself, over-exaggerating the biting and chewing with a simple statement like "you can try it too" or "here's a piece for you" shows that you trust the food, and are happy for them to give it a try.

Be willing to let your child explore the food with their hands. Yes, they're going to get messy. But! They'll learn so much from picking the food up with their hands, or waving the spoon around.

Wondering what this means for different age groups?

  • 6-24 months: Your child is learning about what it means to eat, and what it feels like to do it. Usually they will engage in sensory-motor play (learning about the feel of the food and what they can do to it with their hands), and often experiment with object permanence ('I threw my food on the floor and then Mum/Dad made it appear again'). They'll mush the food and then offer it to you to eat. This is where you grin and bear it, and show your child that you trust the food by eating it.

  • 2 - 4 years: This is where they naturally become a little more picky and selective about what they'll eat. As a parent you need to stay strong on Tip # 1: Parent provides, child decides. At this age they are all about the magical thinking. Food isn't just food. The spoon is a dump truck and the food is the sand. You can build things with food and let me tell you from experience, tin soldier bread pieces make great bricks for a house, and mashed poached egg with avocado is awesome cement.

  • 4 years+: Food play needs to follow the child's interests, have boundaries/rules, and can also have an educational component to help them to understand why different foods are important to try and have as part of a healthy diet. Using picky platters at a family mealtime are a great way to introduce new/non-preferred foods at this age.

If you are concerned with how your child is coping with mealtimes, please get in touch. Alternatively, contact your local Child Development Services for advice.

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