Tantrums at the Table: How to Handle Challenging Behaviors at Mealtimes
There is no shortage of challenges we face from our children at mealtimes that test our patience, such as making faces, grumbling throughout meals, or not wanting to eat at all.
Here are a few crucial points to remember:
- We’re all on different paths, and it’s crucial not to compare yours to someone else’s. No two people’s parenting or feeding experiences are alike.
- Use praise when your child tries vegetables: If you praise your child each time they eat or try vegetables, they’ll be more likely to eat vegetables again. Praise works best when you tell your child exactly what they did well – for example, “Pari, I love the way you tasted your pumpkin and broccoli!”
Try not to let praise become the focus of the meal, though. Your aim is to encourage your child to eat vegetables because your child likes them, not because your child wants praise and rewards from you.
Punishing your child for not eating vegetables can turn vegetables into a negative thing for your child. If your child refuses to eat their vegetables, try not to make a big deal about it – just try again another time. It’s best to take your child’s meal away after about 20 minutes or when everyone else has finished eating.
3.Get your child involved in cooking with vegetables
If you get your child involved in planning and cooking family meals with vegetables, they’re more likely to want to eat the vegetables they’ve helped to prepare.
For example, you could let your child:
- choose vegetables for dinner when you do the shopping
- put chopped vegetables in the steamer or saucepan before you cook them
- arrange sliced capsicum, tomato and mushroom on a pizza base
- wash and toss salad leaves.
Older children can help with grating or chopping vegetables when you feel they can safely handle sharper kitchen tools. Take children shopping with you when you can. Seeing a lot of different vegetables can make children more curious and interested to try them.
- Go for variety, taste and fun: Try to choose foods of different shapes, colours, textures and tastes – the more variety there is, the more likely it is that your child will find something that they’re interested in eating. If you serve new vegetables with food your child enjoys, the entire focus of the meal isn’t on new vegetables.
Remember that taste matters. For example, you could try roasting veggies with fresh herbs or use finely sliced broccoli in a stir-fry or on a pizza. This will probably appeal more to your child than large steamed pieces of vegetables.
You can have fun with vegetables too, especially with younger children. You might sometimes like to make a vegetable face for a snack plate – grated carrot for hair, cherry tomatoes for eyes, a bean for a nose and capsicum strips for a mouth.
- Get vegetables into meals in other ways
In the short term, you can disguise vegetables in foods you know your child likes to eat. For example, you could include pureed or grated vegetables in pasta sauce or soups.
This won’t change your child’s behaviour and thinking about vegetables though, so it’s also important to regularly give your child vegetables in their original form. When you do this, your child has the chance to get familiar with and learn to like different tastes and textures.
6. As much as possible, try to restrict sugar intake from sweets, chocolates, ice-creams, lollipops and similar processed and sugary foods. Sugar can get toddlers’ energy levels skyrocketing and It’s not easy handling an excitable toddler. Instead, use foods which use natural sweeteners like bananas, mangoes, raisins, dates, etc. This will not only calm the tantrums but also ensure your little one eats something nutritious and wholesome.
- Don’t take anything too seriously. It’s not personal, and kids aren’t out to get us. Many of these actions are developmental in nature.
- Whole grain bread, cereal and rice should be consumed instead of refined grains. The high levels of vitamin B contained in whole grains have a direct effect on calming behaviour in a child.
- Examine your assumptions for how mealtimes “should” be. Our expectations are frequently unrealistic (how long our children should stay at the table, how much food they should be eating). We must pause and consider what is realistic.
- When your child is constantly misbehaving at mealtimes, think about what they’re trying to tell you. Are they not hungry? Are they bored? Do they not like it? When we threaten our children with a consequence, or a punishment, or our anger, their brain shuts down. It’s important to connect with your child, hear your child, help your child feel seen and understood, while still setting firm limits and boundaries.
Kanupriya Khanna, a Senior Consultant Nutritionist and Dietitian with over 18 years of paediatric nutrition experience, can help. Because of her continuous devotion to making a difference in people’s lives by instilling excellent eating habits and lifestyles, she is considered as one of the best dietitians in Delhi. You can find out more information here, and also follow her on Instagram and Facebook.