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When mealtimes are a minefield

Kids and mealtimes

Maybe you’ve got a child who doesn’t like tomatoes, or any red food for that matter. Maybe they can sniff out a single grind of pepper in the pasta sauce, or they won’t eat food that is mixed together or touching another food. Maybe your little one has limited their diet to chicken nuggets and noodles. What to do? Mealtimes can certainly be a minefield!

Children’s appetites and their capacity to accept new foods fluctuates depending on their developmental stage. As parents, we’re emotionally connected to seeing our children sustained by food and it can be upsetting and frustrating to prepare nutritious and delicious meals, only to have our kids refuse them. Many parents find themselves doing whatever it takes just to see some food - any food - go down the hatch.

As challenging as food battles can be, they are completely normal – so instead of being alarmed when your culinary efforts are refused, I recommend a taking a deep breath (or ten!) and trying the no fuss/no drama approach to feeding toddlers and young children (and older children, come to think of it, as sometimes our tweens and teens can be a bit critical of our kitchen efforts too!)

As challenging as food battles can be, they are completely normal – so instead of being alarmed when your culinary efforts are refused, I recommend a taking a deep breath (or ten!) and trying the no fuss/no drama approach.

The no fuss/no drama approach:

  • Try to always speak positively about food, modelling gratitude and appreciation. If your children observe you enjoying and valuing good and healthy food, they are more likely to feel relaxed and willing to try new foods too.

  • Be clear about your responsibilities – as a parent, it’s your job to decide what to serve and where and when to serve it. It’s your child’s job to decide how hungry they are and how much they need to eat.

  • Remember that a child’s food preferences and appetite can fluctuate. If you’re concerned about how much they’ve been eating, it can be helpful to take a look at what they’ve eaten over an entire week rather than just a day, to see if they’re eating a balanced diet.

  • Offer limited choices. “Would you like a peanut butter or a honey sandwich?” rather than “What would you like for morning tea?”

  • Offer small portions. Having too much on their plates can be overwhelming for kids. Start small and offer seconds.  

  • Don’t use food as a reward or punishment, as this heightens the intensity a fussy child might feel around food.

  • Implement the ‘one bite’ rule. Establish a fun family tradition that all new food is sampled - by everyone. Your kids might refuse this to begin with, but just keep going. The general rule of thumb is that it can take up to 18 presentations of the same food for a child to give it a try.

  • If your child doesn’t want to eat any more, try not to make a fuss. It’s important that kids learn to listen to their bodies and determine when they are full. Simply transfer the uneaten food into a small container or dish and if your child is hungry later on, offer them their leftovers with a smile and a positive attitude.

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  • Don’t offer alternatives once you have prepared a meal. This is hard because we desperately want our little ones to eat a good meal at the end of the day so they’re full and don’t wake up in the night! However, providing too many options just enables kids to reject more options. It’s amazing how children learn to like a new food when nothing else is offered!

  • Try to eat together as a family whenever possible – even if kids need a pre-dinner snack to tide them over (or adults need a second dinner because eating at 5pm doesn’t tide them over! Actually, no, a second dinner for grown-ups probably isn’t that helpful in the long run...) The benefit of family meals is that children learn so many important life skills when eating at the table with their family, even from a very young age. They learn how to appreciate interesting conversations and listening to others. A lot of connection happens around food and eating. This is also a great place to learn how to use a knife and fork correctly and what manners are all about. Plus, they can watch us big people bravely eating a range of healthy foods without fear of broccoli or Brussels sprouts.

  • Once your children are old enough, and tall enough with the help of a sturdy stool, enlist their help in the preparation of food. Young children can be given a spoon to help mix, a blunt knife to cut soft things and a sink of warm bubbly water and some unbreakables to wash (toddlers love this!). Sounds a bit messy, yes, but inviting children to participate in meal prep can give them a sense of involvement that translates into better buy-in for actually eating the food!

  • From time to time, reintroduce a food that has previously been rejected. It’s amazing what can happen second, third or eighteenth time around!

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale is our Senior Parent Coach and we’ve been lucky enough to have her on our team for over 24 years. She’d love to raise free-range chickens, write children’s books and perhaps even take up horse-riding again.

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