Mealtime behaviours can be difficult to manage, particularly if your child often complains about the menu, avoids trying new foods, refuses to eat healthy food or throws tantrums.
Fussy eating is a behaviour
When children are showing negative mealtime behaviours, they’re not just acting out as a way to retaliate or rebel. Children generally want to do the right thing and be good. When children cry, shout or complain, their behaviours mean something; they are trying to communicate how they feel about a situation.
The tantrum at dinnertime may mean that they feel anxious about gagging on a certain food they’ve gagged on before, and they don’t feel safe. It may mean that they are worried that the taste of an unfamiliar food will be so disgusting that they might vomit. It might mean that they are frustrated because they’re missing their favourite TV show. It may mean that they’re not hungry. It may mean that they wanted to sit on a different chair. In your child’s mind, these are all very valid, important reasons for refusing or avoiding to eat.
Before you react to those behaviours, take a pause and try to understand the behaviour. Could it be that your child is anxious, upset, frustrated, sad, feeling sick or not hungry? If you’re not sure, ask them. “Tell me what’s wrong, I might be able to help”. Once you understand what’s wrong, you can then empathise with your child and support them in a better way.
Fussy eating isn’t a condition, it’s a behaviour. Children can improve their behaviours.
‘Fussy eaters’ can become healthy eaters.
Positive mealtime behaviours
Be consistent with how you respond to your child’s behaviour – set rules and follow through with consequences. Boundaries make children feel safe and confident, and helps them to regulate their behaviour.
Here are some tips on managing behaviours at mealtime:
- Set mealtime rules to help your child understand what is expected of them
- Model healthy eating habits – children do as we do!
- Make family mealtimes engaging – have conversations, tell stories or play word games
- Focus on and praise good behaviour (e.g. tasting new food, sitting nicely)
- Ignore bad behaviours (e.g. complaining, wriggling)
- Manage disruptive mealtime behaviours (e.g. tantrum) the same as other behaviours
It’s not always possible to ignore bad behaviours. Sometimes our children’s behaviour is disruptive or dangerous. When our children’s behaviour at mealtime is disruptive, such as throwing a tantrum, we can deal with it in the same way as we would in other situations. It’s not because it happens at mealtime that we need to walk on eggshells.
If you would normally ask your child to sit in time-out for a few minutes when they are throwing a tantrum, it is also appropriate to do it at mealtime. If your child is acting out, follow through with consequences the same way as you would if it happened at the shops or playground.
Most importantly, don’t ignore positive behaviours! Praise and reinforce good mealtime behaviours, even if they aren’t perfect. If you engage your child while they eat and spend time together at mealtime, you will have more opportunities to model healthy eating habits and notice good behaviours.