Sometimes I feel like I spend entire days saying my daughter's name for one reason or another. Claire, can you please come here? Claire, please don't do that. Claire, Claire, Claire ... That means by the time dinner rolls around, I have very little fight left in me. Luckily, Claire is a pretty solid eater, but I'm not exempt from the occasional dinnertime argument. But if you're wondering how to get your child to actually eat their dinner, it's important to know you're not alone. In fact, there are experts wholly devoted to this subject and they're dishing on what you can do to help ease stress at the table.
"When it comes to picky eating, it can be hard to find a solution that is fun, connected, and playful," Kate Orson, Hand In Hand Parenting Instructor and author of Tears Heal: How to listen to our children, tells Romper in an email interview. "On the one extreme, we can simply let our child survive off yogurt and spaghetti with tomato sauce, with underlying worries about their nutrition. On the other extreme we can try the ‘threat of starvation’ approach where we just put their dinner down in front of them and refuse to give any other options."
"In desperation we may have tried either or both of these approaches, but never felt completely comfortable with them," Orson says. "Luckily, there is is a third way that can help with the underlying root cause of picky eating."
Orson says children gather stress and tension from the early experiences in their lives when they felt small and helpless. They use little everyday moments, like dinnertime, to try and tell us about these feelings through their behavior. "When we learn to listen to our children’s feelings, we are doing the most compassionate thing possible, allowing them to express their upset so that they grow in confidence," she says. "That plate of peas won’t look so scary when it’s no longer clouded by a mind full of upset."
Likewise, JoAnn Crohn, CEO of Whimsicle, tells Romper it's important to determine the "why" behind a lack of eating, such as eating too many snacks or simply not being interested in the meals. Once you do that, Crohn says you should take the focus away from eating and instead emphasize the importance of spending meal time as a family. "We can't force our kids to eat, but we can instill the importance of family time as a chance to reconnect and a special time that we stay at the table for," she says.
Orson says there are a few ways to encourage children to eat, including a game of "yuck," where you simply reverse roles and pretend that you are scared of the food. "Bring your fork up to your mouth, and make a suspicious face," she says. "Try it and make exaggerated yucky sounds. Run away from it. You might even encourage your child to feed you this disgusting food by saying, 'I hope you don’t make me eat this horrible food.'"
You can also try the opposite by taking bites of your food while looking at it skeptically. "As you chew it say, 'mmmmm,'" Orson says. "Gradually ramp up your surprise and delight at how delicious the food is with a big long 'mmmmmm' sound. Make some animated movement to express how tasty it is. Perhaps you run around around the room in a funny manner, and then come back and say, 'Oh sorry, that food just sent me a bit silly for a moment.'"
These, of course, are just a few examples of modeling behavior that will help encourage healthy eating. "Once kids see eating meals as a social act, they will be more like to eat their food," Crohn says.
Which means that will also be one less argument you will have at the end of the day and, really, that's a parenting win if I ever did see one.
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