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Visions Journal

How to Win Mealtime Battles

Let go of control and focus on connection!

Carolyn M.

Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 19-20

Photo of author, Carolyn M.

When I introduced solids to my baby daughter, I took a purposeful approach. I read endlessly. I familiarized myself with best practices for feeding kids. I learned how to create an environment that empowered my child to be in tune with her body and her own needs.

In the end, I chose to follow an approach called baby-led weaning, which encourages babies to feed themselves. When babies are ready for solids, parents offer real food rather than spoon-feeding them the traditional baby food we might find in a jar.1 It was very messy! Our relatives found it hilarious, and as long as it wasn’t happening at their house, they were happy to watch the show.

Baby-led weaning emphasized that, as a parent, I was responsible for what, when and where the food was served. My child was responsible for deciding how much to eat, or whether or not to eat at all.2

This was very different from how mealtimes went when I was child. I can clearly recall sitting at the table for what felt like hours after everyone else had finished eating, compelled to finish my dinner. As I grew older, I discovered ways to discreetly dispose of the food, thinking my parents wouldn't notice. While I know my parents were doing what they thought was best, these mealtime battles reinforced the idea that I didn’t know what was best for my body and didn’t help me learn my own hunger and satiety cues.

For this reason, I wanted to set my daughter up with a healthy relationship with her body and food. We were hoping to encourage our child to be responsible for her own body's needs, rather than following the demands of her caregivers.

Reality bites

This was great in theory, but sometimes really hard in practice, especially with a child who wasn’t following the typical trajectory. Despite the best-laid plans, the division of responsibility no longer worked for us by the time my daughter turned two: I continued to take care of the what, when and where, but she stopped eating. Period. Mealtime became a massive source of stress and frustration and our family started to suffer because of it.

We started to notice that many of the foods she once enjoyed no longer felt safe for her to eat. Before I knew it, her diet mainly consisted of brown foods. You know, the ones that come in a box in the middle aisles of the grocery store or in the freezer section. The ones we’re told are not good for our kids. It makes sense when you think about it. A Goldfish cracker is always going to taste the same unless you try a new flavour, but even then, it's very predictable. A blueberry, on the other hand, can taste sweet or sour. It can be hard, soft, mushy or even rotten. For some children, the unpredictability of certain foods can be a source of significant stress.

For the next three years, I became a short-order cook. I’m embarrassed to say that I made two meals every day, one for my picky eater and one for the rest of us. Nobody wants to be a short-order cook when it comes to family meals. Not only is it exhausting, but it comes with the shame that you know you shouldn’t be doing it, that you are giving in to your kids and contributing to their picky eating. But sometimes we have to choose between expending energy cooking two different meals or dealing with the fallout that may come if we don’t.

Getting to know our young eater

Right before my daughter turned four, we learned she is autistic. This confirmed why many of the strategies recommended for typical kids weren’t working for us. During these years when she existed on a total of maybe five different types of food, we focused on helping her in ways not related to food. As a highly anxious kid, the days were a minefield of stressors, from existing in a busy preschool environment, to adjusting to a new baby sibling, to navigating sleep challenges. We recognized that something had to give, and for us that was mealtime.

We took the demand off dinner by serving safe foods. When she started having the capacity to handle more, our strategy changed. We began serving her what we were eating, but always with her safe foods included. Depending on how her day went, she might happily try something new and even enjoy it. But other days, when she was less regulated after an exhausting day at school or a day when she was pushed to her limits, she would simply refuse to try the food.

This is always a hard one to accept. Sometimes we revert to the parenting techniques we were raised with, such as saying, “How about just one bite?” or, “You won't know if you like it unless you try it.” But those phrases never help and only add stress for all of us, which ultimately takes away from the power of the connection that mealtime can bring.

Once we shifted our focus away from mealtime battles to building connection, things seemed to fall into place. By helping our kid with the struggles of the day, she can arrive at dinner with a less activated nervous system and sometimes be open to new flavours. During meals, we started going around the table to share our highs and lows from the day. This has given us something to talk about and focus on without our kid feeling like the spotlight is on her at every meal.

When it comes to feeding our kids, there are some great resources and best practices to consult. But when those don’t work, it’s OK to weather the storm in a way that works for your family. Dealing with challenging meals is stressful enough without the added shame of doing things “wrong.” As someone who has done all the wrong things, take it from me: these phases come and go, but what your kids will remember is the time you spent connecting together around the dinner table.

About the author

Carolyn is a mom of two and a parent peer support worker for FamilySmart. She regularly connects with parents and caregivers whose kids are struggling with mental health and substance use. She lives in the Comox Valley, on Vancouver Island

Footnotes:
  1. Carrus, E. (2023, April 21). Dos and don’ts of baby-led weaning. Parents. parents.com/baby/feeding/solid-foods/dos-and-donts-of-baby-led-weaning

  2. HealthLink BC. (2021, September 8). Feeding your child using division of responsibility. healthlinkbc.ca/pregnancy-parenting/parenting-babies-0-12-months/feeding-your-baby/feeding-your-child-using

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