Setting the scene for enjoying food

by Nicolas Boada on September 24, 2020

By Stina Oftedal, PhD, APD

When Sharon asked me to write a guest post and have me free reign as to what to write about, I knew I had to address the reason I bought her gorgeous bamboo plates in the first place! I’m Norwegian and we are suckers for a bit of ‘hygge’, and the Aussie animal plates bring a lot of hygge to the table with their interesting texture, cuteness and invitation to engage creatively with food.

If you haven’t heard the term ‘hygge’ before it can be translated to mean ‘coziness’, but it carries a lot more weight to it than that. To me it means putting a little bit of extra effort into the everyday moments with our family to create a comforting atmosphere of togetherness and enjoyment. There’s few ways to create a bit of hygge around meal times for the little people in our lives to increase the likelihood of them feel drawn to the table, more inclined to stay at the table, and maybe even eat some food!

Familiar food
We all know kids love familiarity (sometimes very frustratingly so). But did you know this might be hard-wired as a survival mechanism, and not just to drive you mad? There is a lot of research into understanding the neuroscience of appetite and eating. And something that jumped out at me when reading up on this was a section that said: “Foraging – the search for nutritious foods – is one of the brain’s most important functions. In humans, this activity relies primarily on vision, especially when it comes to finding those foods that we are already familiar with”.

Kids are still learning, if its the first time they see a food they literally have no idea if it is safe to eat it, or less dramatically, if it is going to taste nice. This is why continuing to expose children to a food over and over in a non-pushy way can help them accept a new food. Research says 10-20 times or more might be needed. To some this might mean they eat it and like it, for others it might mean it takes this long for them to even let it touch their lips. Non-pushy exposure can include playing with, growing, cutting, cooking/ baking, drawing, reading about or looking at videos of how things grow. It does not have to include eating it at all!

The love of familiarity is why I always recommend including food they like at every meal time along foods that they have not yet learned to like. It allows them to feel like it is safe to sit down at the table because at least there is something there they feel comfortable eating. Their guard comes down, they feel less stressed, and more open to the experience. You do not have to cook only meals they like, but think of it like being “considerate without catering” in order to set them up for a positive experience.

Appealing food
Food that looks good helps switch on the appetite signal, gets our salivary gland going and our body ready to eat. Sadly, what is appealing to us might not be appealing to kids! A few things that can turn kids off food might be: food that is mixed together or touching each other, too much food on the plate, too many new foods, food that is too big (as in how on earth will I get that in my mouth), food that is an unusual texture or hard to get on a fork or spoon. You get the point, the possibilities are endless.

You will no doubt know a lot of the things your child dislikes, but the reason as to why they say “I don’t like it” might leave you scratching your head. If your child is old enough, try talking to them about why certain foods might be unappealing to them (is it the texture, smell, taste, hard to chew or swallow) but if they refuse a lot of foods, are refusing more and more foods, and you cannot find ways to help them it might be a good idea to talk to someone with training in feeding therapy.

A few things you can try:
– Use a divided plate so the food is easily identifiable and not touching.
– Make sure the size of the food is easy to manage.
– Serve only a small amount of food at a time.
– Serve food “family style” in the middle of the table and everyone can help themselves (with assistance if needed).
– Give them two plates (one for eating, one for foods they are still learning about)
– Decompose a meal by serving the liquid part of the meal on the side instead of mixing everything. You can offer a small bowl for sauce or gravy so they can dip they want to.
– Take some of the meat and vegetables out for the child before adding liquid to a stew, curry or casserole.

It is also no secret that kids love fun and novelty. Food cut in funny shapes, toasts or pancakes with a teddy face, food on skewers, things to sprinkle on their food, or using fun cutlery. But realistically there is only so much time available to do this on a regular weekday, and this is where I feel the bamboo plates are priceless. It makes making food fun easy! Kids can decorate the plate themselves (non-pushy interaction with food!) or be presented with a little masterpiece created by you. It’s surprising how exciting some strategically placed peas and carrot sticks can make an ordinary meal!

Familiar routines
A lot of kids thrive on routine, and having a familiar sequence and predictability around when food is offered can help with eating and appetite. Knowing the sequence of breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and perhaps supper, avoids insecurity around knowing when the next meal will come and may stop them constantly asking for food too.

Having structured sit-down meals together instead of grazing can also help ensure they arrive to the table hungry! Usually leaving at least two hours between meal times, and this includes snacks, helps ensure they are actually hungry for the meal offered. If your child is constantly way past hungry at some meals or not hungry at all at others, changing around meal times or what is offered might work to get the most out of their appetite.

Having a familiar structure around what happens at meal times, like washing hands, helping to set the table and even helping to make lunch can also help signal to the body that it’s almost time to eat. For little busy bodies, a five minute warning that play will have to pause for meal-time can also help minimise the feeling of being disrupted.

Familiar routines can also include a weekly rhythm to meals. We have Saturday night pizza, Sunday roast and spaghetti bolognese Mondays. It could also be pancakes or bacon and eggs for breakfast on the weekend. Whatever your family enjoys! As your children grow these little things become valued family traditions they look forward to.

Appealing atmosphere
Creating a space where you and your kid(s) want to spend some time can help improve appetite. Stress hormones turn off your appetite signal and switch on the fight or flight response. I’m not saying we have to set the table with candles, a table cloth and silver ware, but there are a few things we can do to make an environment conducive to eating:

– Trying to keep the kitchen table clear of other life stuff (ahem, why is this so hard?!).
– Turning off the TV and out other screens away.
– Eat together as often as possible, kids learn so much by modelling. Often this means one parent will eat dinner alone later if they are not home yet. If it just cannot happen at dinner, try eating breakfast or lunch together.
– Only call children to the table when you are ready to sit down yourself. Make sure cutlery, cups of water, condiments, paper towels and so on are on the table so you can sit down and focus on eating.
– Make sure the food is cool enough to be eaten when you sit down. Food that is too hot can be frustrating and you loose precious butt-on-chair-time if you have kids who lose interest quickly.

The most important thing to create an appealing atmosphere is having a no pressure policy when it comes to food. Ellyn Satter, a dietitian from the US, has a mantra that says: “parents provide, children decide”. It is our job to decide the when, where and what of feeding, it is the child’s job to decide how much they eat, or if they eat at all. This means no bribing and no pressure. Easier said than done, I know! This point really deserves a lot more space but I encourage you to read up on the division of responsibility eating if you find mealtimes really frustrating and stressful.

And finally: self-compassion and self-care
All these things do not have to happen every day. Having expectations that everyone will feel cozy and happy all the time is just setting us up for disappointment. Trial and error will teach you what works for your family. If you have a little voice in your head that starts firing off blame, shame or guilt when things do not go to plan at meal times, practice telling that little voice: “it is OK, everyone’s doing the best they can, lets chill out and make the most of it!”

And I love this tips given by a parenting mentor I know: if you feel stressed out from the process of daycare pick-ups or long days of wrangling kids and the dinner prep saga; before you call everyone to dinner, grab a moment to take a few deep breaths to bring down your blood pressure and gather your thoughts. It’s nearly bedtime! You’ve got this!