For some families, dinner time can be the most challenging time of the day, kids and adults are exhausted and just need some space to relax. Dinnertime can quickly spiral out of control, deteriorating towards a full-on disaster zone. Navigating the ‘terrible twos’ at dinnertime can be emotionally challenging and downright exhausting.
Let’s set the scene – you and your little one have had a fabulous day at the park, you’re on top of the household chores, and you’ve just booked the next visit to the grandparents. You head home to start the evening routine, and dinner is next on the agenda.
Tonight’s menu is deliciously grilled chicken pieces, steamed broccoli, carrot sticks, and sweet potato mash. You serve your little one your ‘MasterChef’ quality meal and…cue whining, food smearing, flying carrot sticks, and ultimately tears, most likely from both of you. If you’re lucky, your little one will spend the meal smearing mash over their face, body and high chair while dropping carrot sticks on the cat. However, if your little one enjoys a tantrum or two, the mere sight of a vegetable will bring on an emotional outburst similar to a tropical thunderstorm.
The following recommendations have been revised from a previous Quirky Kid Fussy Eaters article and updated to support you through this tricky age and stage.
Managing Your Emotions
Sometimes it can be really hard to manage your own emotional responses when your child is demonstrating an escalation in their behaviour. Consider these tips for Parental Self-Regulation:
- As hard as it sounds, try to remain calm – when you feel your emotional responses begin (anger, frustration, resentment), remind yourself to breathe, long, slow, deep breaths.
- Remind yourself ‘It’s only a phase, this is normal behaviour, this is my little one testing the boundaries, the behaviour is their means of communication at this age’.
- As a parent, modelling calm behaviour, as well as being willing to accept your child’s emotional responses, will in the long run support your child’s emotional regulation (Ramsden & Hubbard, 2002).
Understanding and Responding to Behaviour
When your child’s behaviour is beginning to escalate, as long as they are not in any immediate danger, it is important to evaluate their behaviour before you respond:
- Ask yourself ‘What is my child’s behaviour trying to tell me?”
- are they trying to avoid a food due to its taste?
- are they trying to avoid a food due to its smell, texture and/or visual aversion?
- are they already full because of late snacks at daycare?
- are they seeking my attention because I am busy cooking?
- can they see their favourite toy, which is just out of reach?
- When you take a moment to try and understand what your child is trying to ‘say’ with their behaviour, then – and only when your child is calm – can you model an appropriate replacement behaviour, e.g. ‘Mummy, more chips please’ or ‘Finished, Mum’.
Positive Behaviour Strategies
Ongoing negative behaviour at dinnertime can be really challenging for everyone, so alongside the tips and strategies above, the following positive behaviour management strategies may be beneficial to support calmer, happier, more productive dinner times:
- Tantrums may be unpleasant and noisy but they are also a great opportunity for parents to demonstrate to their child how to regulate their emotions. Parents can show their child that they are providing loving support within appropriate boundaries. Providing ‘loving, sensitive guiding, and firm’ practices, as opposed to overly firm or overly flexible practices, supports your child’s emotional development (Coyne & Murrell, 2009).
- Consistency is the key – always follow through with the contingency you have set up beforehand. You set your child up for success when you explain your expectations clearly before the meal, such as ‘‘Let’s explore lettuce and cauliflower tonight”. Then provide a contingency and/or choices based on whether your expectations have been met: “After we explore the new foods, you can have your sweet potato mash” (the most preferred item on offer), or “Do you want yoghurt or strawberries after we explore the new foods?” Present the new items alongside foods your child enjoys, withholding the most highly preferred food as reinforcement for meeting your expectations. Reinforcing appropriate behaviour will increase the likelihood that this behaviour will be demonstrated again in the future (Whittingham, 2015).
- Ensure the focus of the meal is about curiosity to try new foods, with achievement measured in small steps, rather than expecting your child to finish a portion of less preferred foods in one sitting. Shaping your child’s food preferences means that you are providing reinforcement based on successful target behaviour and repeated exposure to new and interesting foods (Whittingham, 2015).
- Trying new foods may include talking about the colour, the shape, the texture, what it does to fuel your body, how it feels, how it smells and lastly how it tastes. Encourage a pathway of touch, smell, lick, bite and allow the child to work their way along the pathway at their own pace. Repeated exposure to non-preferred foods in a non-punitive way will support increased likelihood of the child’s willingness to try the foods in the future (Wardle, et al., 2003).
- Remember, your child’s energy intake and hunger may not be aligned with ‘mealtimes’ just yet and so it is important to meet their needs with healthy snacks and food choices across the day (Allen & Myers, 2006).
Prevention and Planning Strategies
It is important to set your child up early with healthy eating behaviours, to provide ongoing information about food and health, and to provide opportunities to explore new foods and textures. Outside of mealtimes, the following tips can be helpful in supporting a child’s positive eating behaviour:
- Depending on your child’s age, incorporate foods into other learning concepts, such as using foods to teach shapes, colours and textures.
- You can incorporate different vegetables and foods in art and craft play, and use this as a time to talk about the foods’ nutritional value.
- Make sure you keep healthy foods accessible to your child – you can keep pre-cut vegetables in the fridge or on the table. When children are hungry, they may be inclined to eat the foods that they wouldn’t normally choose.
- Pair non-preferred foods with highly preferred foods, such as salad dressing or sauce for dipping, this will help your child tolerate new tastes and textures and the sauce can be faded out slowly.
- Encourage your child to participate in the grocery shopping. Let them choose new fruits and vegetables based on fun colours and textures and involve them in meal preparations. Giving your child some choice over their food (within limits) will support them to become more willing to eat the meals you have prepared.
While the information above is intended to support difficult eating behaviours in children at the toddler stage, it is important to note that some children experience more complex negative eating behaviours. In cases of severe food avoidance or associated conditions, families may benefit from individualised consultations. For a child who demonstrates severe food refusal and/or avoidance of particular tastes and textures, a consultation with both a Psychologist and a Nutritionist may be a consideration. Please contact us to schedule an appointment.
- Allen, R.E., & Myers, A.L. (2006). Nutrition in toddlers. Am Fam Physician, 74.9, 1527-1532.
- Coyne, L., & Murrell, A. (2009). The Joy of Parenting: An acceptance and commitment therapy guide to effective parenting in the early years. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA
- Ramsden, S. R., & Hubbard, J. A. (2002). Family expressiveness and parental emotion coaching: Their role in children’s emotion regulation and aggression. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30(6), 657-667.
- Wardle, J., Herrara M.L., Cooke, L. & Gibson, E.L. (2003). Modifying children’s food preferences: The effects of exposure and reward on acceptance of an unfamiliar vegetable. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57, 341–348.
- Whittingham, K. (2015). Connect and shape: A parenting meta-strategy. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4(2), 103-106.