Family mealtimes – delightful or disaster?
By Christina Forsyth
University of Sydney
Anyone with young children knows that sitting down for family mealtimes can be tricky at the best of times. But if feeding your child or sitting down together as a family is fraught with difficulty and high emotion, perhaps your child is bringing their own unique set of challenges to the table.
Is your child struggling with mealtime?
- Does your child have trouble sitting/staying at the table during mealtimes?
- Are they extremely selective/restrictive in the foods they consume?
- Do they only eat a specific texture of food (crunchy, smooth, etc.)?
- Do they refuse to eat foods of a particular colour or texture?
- Do they eat only carbohydrate-rich, highly processed foods?
- Are they ‘scared’ of how a food looks or feels?
- Do they refuse to eat entire food groups such as meat, fruits, and vegetables?
- Do they refuse food unless it is presented in a particular way?
- Do they exhibit disruptive behaviour around mealtimes, such as tantrums and throwing food?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, it may be that your child is experiencing family mealtimes vastly differently from you.
What’s going on?
Sensory challenges around food and family mealtimes may include sensitivity not only to the taste, smell, and texture of certain foods, but also to the environment. Noise, cooking smells, and lighting may cause extreme discomfort in your child, creating high emotion and anxiety, impacting eating, food refusal and extreme selective eating.
Additionally, differences in some children’s ability to communicate may contribute to challenging mealtimes. An inability to understand themselves or explain how they are feeling/what they are thinking makes it difficult for parents to interpret the needs of their children.
Early Links can help with stressful mealtimes
These issues are common in neurodivergent children, including those with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but particularly so in those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
To thrive, children need to eat an adequate and nutritious diet. Time at the dinner table with family and friends underpins important social connections with those we love and role models appropriate behaviour for our children.
Mealtime success strategies
- Ensure your child has a well-supported chair to sit in. Low muscle tone in children can make it difficult to sit properly at the table and can impact feeding.
- Remember that pressuring, cajoling, forcing and bribing children to eat only creates anxiety, which may perpetuate food refusal.
- Sit together as a family as often as possible* for social connection and role modelling of appropriate feeding behaviours. Remember, coming together as a family doesn’t have to be a perfect experience.
- Offer everyone at the table the same meal choosing foods that you find enjoyable.
- Let your child know that they don’t have to eat the meal presented, and make sure you mean it.
- Offer unfamiliar food alongside familiar/favourite foods.
Adapted from the Ellyn Satter Institute. 1
*May not be possible or appropriate for some children/families.
Early Links can help
Research has indicated that feeding challenges in infancy may be an early sign of neurodiversity. The very best outcome for feeding challenges and ensuring nutritional variation and adequacy comes from early intervention.
Our team of qualified dietitians can help families with a range of feeding issues, and you can find out more about them here. Get in touch below to find out how we can help.