Are your family mealtimes turning into a bit of a nightmare with fussy eaters, lots of noise, mess and fuss? These are my Top Tips to help getting round the table a more relaxed and fun affair.
- 1. Make mealtimes inviting – a family mealtime can offer much more than just food. Get into the habit of using pretty tablecloths, napkins, candles, small vases of flowers and playing music to create a calming, welcoming environment. Invite other guests on a regular basis and your child will come to see mealtimes as occasions for fun, rather than a battleground.
2. Involve your child – Laying the table can be turned into a learning experience for your child as the routine of folding napkins, pouring drinks from a small jug and laying cutlery develops their co-ordination, concentration and sense of order. It also means that your child’s first encounter with the mealtime is not the moment at which they actually have to sit down and eat any food.
3. Good news only – Have a rule that only good news will get discussed – ask around the table for stories of funny things that happened during the day. Too often we bring our problems to the table and talk about the bad things that happen to us. This introduces an element of anxiety that will reduce your child’s appetite and foster a sense of foreboding each time you all sit down together.
4. Family meetings – once a week, organize a family meeting where you can discuss mealtimes – it’s important that there’s unity and agreement on what’s acceptable behaviour and general table manners. You can avoid correcting bad habits during mealtimes by addressing them in this meeting, creating a better atmosphere round the table as a result. Use this time to introduce new tasks such as pouring drinks, new items of cutlery or demonstrating how to lay the table. You can allocate chores and duties during this time too.
5. Praise good behaviour – It’s all too easy to get locked in a cycle of correcting bad behaviour, which in turn creates a bad atmosphere around the table. Make a mental note of problems and bad habits that need addressing and save them for the family meeting. Praise your children for good behaviour during mealtimes – even if you’re struggling to see any! Ensure that your praise consists of words that describe the good behaviour – eg. “I can see that you’re pouring the drinks without spilling a drop today – that’s good” rather than just using words like “well done, good boy, brilliant” as these quickly lose their sense of meaning.
6. Create a weekly menu plan with the family – Allow each child to choose their favourite meal and incorporate these into the timetable. Agreeing in advance what you’ll be eating throughout the week will help you to stay calm, more organized and less likely to cave in to protests. Your child will learn that it’s simply not possible to have their favourite dish every day, as you’re accommodating everyone else’s needs too. You’ll be able to eliminate arguments by responding with “but we all agreed we’d be eating this today………… tomorrow, it’s going to be your favourite dish, remember?”.
7. Explore unusual foods – too often a child’s first encounter with a strange or new food is when it’s already cooked and served up on a plate. Take the time to get to know new foods by shopping together in supermarkets and choosing unusual things to bring home. Create times for your child to touch, stroke, feel, cut, smell and explore the outsides and insides of these foods, without being asked to taste them.
8. Themed Dinners – Tasting new foods can be something that’s enjoyed by all the family. Once a month organize a ‘themed dinner’ – this could be Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, French, Italian – not only can you include unusual foods, but also play music and dress up accordingly whilst exploring the culture of that particular land. Invite friends and turn it into a party.
9. Tasting Plate – introduce a ‘tasting plate’ as a starter to your meals. Choose six or eight different foods and put a tiny amount (half a teaspoon) of each on a plate and allow your children to explore.
10. Reduce Portions– Start presenting the food on smaller plates – this will feel less overwhelming to your child and as soon as they start finishing everything on their plates, they’ll come to see themselves as “good eaters”.
Alicia Eaton is a Children’s Behavioural and Emotional Wellbeing Specialist based in London’s Harley Street. She is also the author of the “Words that Work – How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything”; “Fix Your Life with NLP” and “Stop Bedwetting in 7 Days”.