So many of the parents who come to The Confident Eater are struggling with the evening meal.
Often breakfasts and lunches go fairly smoothly and then we hit dinner and the wheels come flying off.
I get asked all the time how to fix dinner time for parents.
As parents we have been working all day, slaving in the kitchen to get something delicious and nutritious on the table and then it gets refused.
Or we've given up and reverted to serving nuggets and cheerios as they get eaten.
But what I've found is that often the issues over dinner are about the whole day. What our child has eaten (or not eaten) earlier in the day can have a surprising impact on what happens at dinner.
What we have for breakfast can set us up for the day either positively or negatively. The amount we eat in the afternoon pre-dinner affects what gets eaten.
Throw in tiredness from all sides and suddenly the atmosphere changes.
And, more importantly dinner is the place that the nutrient dense food gets eaten. Where we serve the veggies and the meat and where everyone gets to refuel on the important stuff.
If it doesn't get eaten it puts so much pressure on everyone. And this is part of the problem. The more pressure on us and on our children then more likely that dinner will go pear shaped.
Resolving this can often be fairly simple. A few changes in the way we organise our day, schedule meals and approach dinner can result in really positive results very quickly.
As parents of selective eaters a common worry is that our children are not eating enough protein.
Meat can be very challenging especially for young children however, it's by no means the only source of protein.
Dips can be a great way to both introduce more protein and encourage our children to eat more variety.
Teaming veggies/nuggets/fruit/bread with dip can make all more appealing.
Hummus is a great option from a nutritional stand-point - chickpeas are even one of our 5 A Day :)
But there is also yoghurt. Perfect for dipping fruit into. But also why not carrots or cucumber?
And don't be bound by traditional dips. What about softened peanut butter? It's a good source of protein and fats.
Team it with some salty soy sauce and you have a basic satay.
Tomato sauce is not a protein-rich dip ;) but it often does encourage children to eat something they normally wouldn't. If this is the case it's a great bridge for increasing variety.
If dips aren't on the menu yet give them a whirl and let me know how you go!
These are all words that can crop up depressingly frequently if we have a hesitant eater.
They are also words that leap out of toddlers mouths seemingly without provocation!
However, language does matter. It's far easier to get from a "this is not my favourite thing yet" to "I love this" than from a "ewww, yuck gross" to "yuuummm, this is my favourite".
At The Confident Eater we always prioritise language. It can have such an affect either positively or negatively on what's happening at the table.
This is especially important if you have more than one child and are being greeted with a chorus of yucks :)
Respect for what's being served is really important. Anything that hits the table has been shopped for, prepared and served with love. We teach our children how to speak well of food - even if it's not our favourite thing, yet ...
The way we speak and relate around things can impact outcomes. Language is important. As we've all become aware there is a big difference between saying "you're a naughty boy" and "what you did wasn't kind".
This is one of the main reasons I'm "The Confident Eater" rather than "Picky Eating Rescue". Although "picky" and "fussy" are terms that are often used to describe the way people eat they can also be self-replicating in a negative way.
Calling someone a "picky eater" is like labeling them "the naughty girl". It can reinforce all the behaviours we least appreciate.
It also gives them a pass on trying new food. "I can't try that as I'm the picky eater".
I prefer to talk about the positive aspects instead. How can we support our child to be more confident about new food? How can we help them learn to eat foods that are not in their comfort zone?
And most importantly how can we make food joyful and pleasurable?
If our child does have a "picky" label it really does help long term if we can rephrase that both for them and the people who support them.
This was feedback from a lovely client I worked with a few weeks ago. She is delighted they can all sit down to relaxed meals.
This is a key part of getting children eating well. Any time we are anxious, upset or angry we are far less likely to eat - especially something challenging.
As difficult as it can be the no.1 rule of meals is always relaxation and calm.
If you're so far away from this it seems ridiculous to even contemplate then please do get in touch. Changing the way we approach meals is not impossible and can make all the difference.
An oasis of calm and an experience that everyone looks forward to being part of is achievable and is definitely something to aim for.
A good starting place is to look at whether we - as parents - look forward to meals or not. If we're dreading it and gritting our teeth then this is what we communicate. I always joke and say pretend it's a cosy Italian with the partner (and no kids) and smile, breath and relax as though you're there. Fake it until you make it.
If the parents are calm and relaxed and enjoying the meal it really doesn't take long for the children to follow.
Are your meals relaxed or a war zone?
What do you want to learn to eat?
This is a good question to ask.
Some children are very happy eating their narrow range of comfort foods and have no interest in branching out.
However, lots of selective eaters harbour a wish to eat something. Be it pizza so they can join in with "pizza day" or oranges so they can share the half time sports refreshment.
My most surprising answer was from a little boy with ARFID who replied cauliflower!
What would your child love to eat if they were able?
I speak to and hear of more and more adults who have a narrow range of foods they are able to eat. It can feel like a heavy weight burying them, especially if they can see the same happening to their children.
What I always look at is the science behind eating. There are some key factors that we have to understand.
Eating is actually a very challenging thing to do. It involves all the senses. Sight, smell, hearing, touch and of course taste.
Moreover, we are putting this stuff into our mouth. It doesn't get a lot more anxiety producing than that!
We also don't eat something that is not within our comfort zone. Why would you eat something that doesn't look/ smell / feel "right"?
We are also unlikely to love something new right off the bat, especially if it's not something within our comfort zone. It takes time for us to become accustomed to something and therefore develop a liking for it (think beer, wine, coffee).
Knowing that there is a logical process and knowing that we can understand why we or our children struggle to eat something is very empowering. It also starts to give us clues as to how we can then move forwards.
I love knowing how it all works as it often does provide a map and a way out of the deep, dark woods of selective eating.
I have been working with a lovely young adult, Charlotte *. She had got to the point where her limited menu choices were becoming more and more difficult socially and wanted to make a change.
She was also becoming increasingly frustrated, constantly fielding comments about what she did and didn't eat. In our first conversation Charlotte was explaining how no one understood that this wasn't just "fussy" behaviour where she was choosing not to eat on a whim.
Like many selective eaters it wasn't a question of choice but an inability to even consider eating certain foods.
In working together I feel like I've learned so much. It's given me such an understanding about how long-term very narrow eating creates patterns and restricts new steps.
Charlotte has made some pretty impressive food steps forwards but most importantly has learned how to approach new menu items and to tackle things that previously would have been impossible.
But don't take it from me, hear what she has to say:
"Working with Judith has helped me figure out why I have an aversion to certain foods, and has given me strategies to help me slowly introduce new foods into my diet in a way that is comfortable for me."
Selective eating is not just the preserve of the young, and no, not everyone grows out of it.
If you are a little less young and would love to expand your diet please get in touch. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
(* name changed to protect privacy)
Judith is passionate about good food and is even more passionate about enabling other people to enjoy the wide variety of fresh food available today.