We talked to Lorren and Rachael from The Food Tree about the struggles and anxiety that parents have at the dinner table and what they thought was the top tip for raising a confident eater.
Mealtime can often be a stressful time for parents of young children. Picky eaters, dietary needs, what to serve, when to serve it and creating a nutritious meal everyone enjoys that builds healthy bodies is a lot of pressure.
As parents we are also bombarded with information about organic, low sugar food, articles about what we all doing wrong when it comes to our children’s diets. We see parents on social media posting perfectly arranged balanced meals at an uncluttered table in front of a freshly arranged spray of pink roses and wonder what we are doing wrong when all our kids will eat is some frozen peas and boring brown buttered bread.
But Instagram-happy, Pinterest-perfect family meals are not the norm for most.
We wanted to ask both Lorren and Rachael about their business The Food Tree and whether they thought society was playing a part in how parents expect mealtimes should be like.
Do you think that anxiety and stresses from society play a part in placing pressure on parents at meal times?
There is tremendous pressure on parents these days, with information overload and opinions from all corners as to how we should raise our children! Some of this advice and pressure definitely interferes with the feeding relationship between parent and child.
Every family is different, but we all share the same priority of wanting happy healthy children. We encourage parents to let go of the idea of perfection and put less pressure on themselves and their children. Instead look at creating family meal times that encourage connection.
How we feed is just as important as what, especially for our little people. Those early years are a critical time for developing a healthy relationship with food, their body and us. If meal times are a welcoming, happy occasion, children enjoy being at the table, and begin learning to eat, what and how we do.
If that means sometimes you favour a quick and easy meal of leftovers or beans on toast so you have more time to sit and reconnect after a busy day, then so be it.
When we start looking at health more holistically, that is thinking about our mental and emotional health as well as our physical, it can change our perspective and goals. Let’s start being more kind to ourselves and each other, by stepping away from that need to be perfect!
We follow the work of world-renowned family therapist and dietitian Ellyn Satter, and she sums it up perfectly “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” If meal times are stressful, either in the planning or eating, then nutrition and other aspects of health and well-being are likely suffering. By bringing peace and joy back to meal times, we find families are happier and healthier in all ways.
What can parents do to de-stress the dinner time routine if they have a fussy eater?
If you have a child that is a fussy or selective eater, then the stress on families can be next level. Part of working through that challenge will be accepting that it is not actually our role to get our children to eat!
So often when our child isn’t eating, we get focused on each mouthful and meal, we forget to look at the bigger picture. Such as considering what else is happening for them in terms of development and their intake of food across the week.
Fluctuation in appetite is very normal, especially for small children. We cannot genuinely know how hungry another person is, so those days when it seems we are living with the hungry caterpillar, that is normal. Those other days, where they barely eat a bite, also normal!
Rachael, our paediatric dietitian, is trained directly by Ellyn Satter, in the Division of responsibility approach. This is a highly effective for raising happy healthy eaters. To explain it simply the ethos is– we provide: the child decides.
The adult decides what, when and where to offer the food. The child decides if, and how much to eat from what we provide.
This allows our children to stay tuned into what their body needs, rather than pressure from us to ignore those cues or get into a battle of wills over ‘one more bite”.
Ideally, I want my child to enjoy her veggies when she is an adult because then she is likely to eat more of them, but I also want her to know she can have cake and eat it to, after all, that is what cake is for!
What are your top tips for raising a confident eater?
- Make meal times a pressure-free zone. Provide variety and choice, something from all the food groups and let children choose from what you provide. Aim to put something on the table that you know your child will eat, even if that is only plain pasta. Once your child knows they won’t be pressured to eat, the table becomes a safe place to start exploring new foods. For some children this can take time, especially if they have been pressured to eat in the past.
- Try serving meals ‘smorgasbord style’. Have little tongs and spoons to select what they want from what is available. Yes, there will be a bit of mess as they develop their coordination and skill, that is definitely part of the learning! It gets better and easier with time and practice.
- Get creative with leftovers! We love meals like omelettes and soups, where you can pop in what was left from the smorgasbord last night. This cuts down on food waste dramatically.
- Eat together as a family as often as you can. A family meal is defined as an adult a child sitting together, sharing the same meal. That can be breakfast with Mum, afternoon tea with Grandma, or fish & chips at the beach with the whole family. Children learn from watching us. If they see us trying new foods, enjoying broccoli and kale, then they will eventually feel ready to try it themselves. For some children, it can take 20 times being exposed to a food (in a pressure-free environment) before they feel willing to try. For those who have been pressured to eat in the past, this may be 100+ exposures!
Why did you both decide to open the food tree?
My daughter was born very small for her gestational age, and due to some suspected allergies and illness she also developed a feeding aversion, she lost all interest in eating most foods. Resulting in some serious anxiety (for me!) and some pretty miserable meal times for our family.
I did what many parents do, and started googling solutions. There is a tonne of information out there on ‘fussy eating’. Much of it is counterproductive, and at worst, some of it is actually harmful. I found it so stressful trying to assess what advice I could actually trust.
Thankfully at the time I was attending a lovely playgroup, and met Rachael. Her support and guidance got us back on track with peaceful meals, and gave me so much reassurance and my daughter is now a happy, confident eater.
An a registered ECE teacher, over the years I have worked with many families going through similarly stressful situations. It struck me that in these moments, it can be a very isolating time for families, as they need quality advice, but they also need support and understanding.
Rachael and I started The Food tree with the goal of providing families with evidence based advice provided by registered professionals. It’s also important to us that the information is delivered with kindness, compassion and ongoing support.
We have also established connections with a range of lovely qualified professionals- such as paediatric physios, psychologists, and paediatricians. This enables us to work more holistically with families, it also means when they come to us with a health concern, we can help them find the trusted support they need.
When is it worth seeing a medical professional when it comes to your child’s eating?
We definitely recommend seeing a registered paediatric dietitian, or your GP for advice, if your child is:
- Not eating any fruit or vegetables at all
- Is eating less than 20 foods in total
- Is excluding whole food groups
- Has had a dramatic shift in weight (either up or down 2 percentile points)
If meal times are a source of stress and anxiety, often a consult with Rachael can be enough to bring some joy back to the table.
We also offer a range of options, including in person (soon to be online ) workshops, and our new book Feeding a growth Mindset. So if you aren’t ready for a consultation, we can still offer something to support you and your family.
Our own relationship with food and our body is also important. For some of us it can take time to learn to love and accept your body after you have had children, or as we age. Perhaps you were raised a member of the ‘Clean your plate’ club, that so many of us were a part of. To raise competent eaters, we need to be one ourselves, so if food and your body is something that is on your mind and causing you concern, drop us a message and see if we can support you in any way.
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