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7 ways to encourage your picky eater to stay seated during mealtimes

Mealtimes can be a challenging time for parents of picky eaters, getting them to sit still during meals can be a real task. Struggling with this can be overwhelming, especially when there are so many reasons kids may find it difficult to sit still for extended periods of time - they may be easily distracted, need to stim, exhibit a strong sensory aversions to certain smells, textures or tastes of foods, find it physically difficult to eat, or not be posturally supported at the table. However, developing strategies to encourage your child to stay seated during mealtimes is essential for promoting healthy eating habits, and for creating a positive, structured environment for your child. In this article, I’ll cover seven tips that parents can use to encourage their picky eater to stay seated during mealtimes.

Create a predictable mealtime routine:

Kids thrive on routines and establishing a structured mealtime routine is essential for promoting good behaviour and helping your child understand what is expected of them at mealtimes. Your mealtime routine should help your child identify that there is a beginning, middle and end to each meal. Try establishing a predictable mealtime by serving meals at the same time each day and include a series of rituals that will help your child anticipate the various stages of the meal (wash hands, sit at table, eat, put plate at sink, wash hands, meal over) and help to build the association with sitting down for a long period of time. Make sure to communicate clearly with your child about the routine and give them time with tranisitional changes if this is an issue for them.

Always offer a preferred food with each meal:

New foods can be scary for some kids, particularly those with heightened sensory needs. As a rule of thumb, every meal should have a combination of a protein, carbohydrate and a fruit or vegetable and one of these foods needs to be a preferred food you know your child will eat. This helps establish nutritional adequacy and helps to introduce new foods in a safe and fun way. Experiment with different approaches, from serving small portions to creating visually engaging meal presentations. Make mealtimes fun, blending in different colours, and food shapes to keep distracted thoughts away.

Reduce distractions:

Kids can be easily distracted by their surroundings, which can interfere with their ability to sit in the chair and focus on their meal. Where possible, try reducing distractions during mealtimes - turn off the TV, have no phones or ipads at the table reduce noise, and avoid having too many toys on the table. This will help to create a calm and peaceful environment.

Use visual aids:

Visual aids such as pictures or charts can be a great way to help kids understand mealtime expectations and manage transitions. You can use pictures of happy kids eating at the table, charts or symbols to communicate the message. Showing pictures of your child sitting on a chair and eating with a fork can help them understand what they are expected to do. You could also make use of visual aids to encourage good behaviour during mealtimes - this could include a “mealtime rewards” system that your child can work towards, which can help your child to view mealtimes as a positive part of the day (*just be sure to not pressure kids with rewards or to use food as a reward).

Make mealtimes social:

Take the pressure off meals by creating a relaxed, social environment for mealtimes, with the focus being on family first and food second. This could include talking about your day and sharing stories, playing a family game at the dinnertable (like I spy). You can use activities to help your child engage or focus on the food (who can scoop the most peas onto their fork, or build the biggest mash potato tower). Encouraging your child to eat together with the family is also a great way to model positive eating behaviours, particularly with non-preferred or new foods. Socialising can also increase your child’s appetite and help them to feel comfortable eating with other people in the future.

Provide postural and sensory support:

Some children may experience a sense of discomfort when sitting for extended periods of time. Making the chair comfortable for your child is the first step towards having them sit on it longer. Posture is very important at mealtimes, with children needing full postural stability and a secure seating position for core and head support, which can help with better hand-to-mouth coordination, fine motor manipulation, and support chewing. Use the 90-90-90 method, where the child has 90º support at the hips, 90º knees, and 90º ankles. If your child needs to fidget at the table, you can provide support with a range of products including: balance cushions, fidget toys, wobble stools, therapy balls, weighted blankets, and therabands.

Positive Reinforcement:

Lastly, be sure to offer praise and positive reinforcement, even small wins. Giving praise such as "Well done for sitting in your chair until you finish your meal" can help build mental muscle for future behaviour. This will build their self-esteem, encourage good behaviour, and make mealtime a better experience for everyone.

Getting kids to stay at the table for mealtimes can be a difficult task for parents, but it's essential to establish good habits and togetherness around food. By making the environment comfortable, reducing distractions, establishing a routine, and offering praise, you can help your child build positive associations with mealtimes, and make dinnertime an enjoyable part of your family's day. Try out these tips, and experiment with different techniques, to find the approach that works best for your child. Remember that every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Be patient, consistent and above all, be willing to adapt your approach as needed, and over time, you will be able to make mealtime an enjoyable and positive aspect of your child's day.

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