Ask A Naturopath – My child eats well outside of the home, but mealtimes at home are always a battle. Why is this happening and what can I do?

February 22, 2019
Ask A Naturopath – My child eats well outside of the home, but mealtimes at home are always a battle. Why is this happening and what can I do?

This Ask A Naturopath question is answered by Naturopath Georgie Stephen.

Question: Mealtimes at home are a battle with my 4 y/o daughter. She fusses and turns her nose up at new foods. However, I’ve noticed that when we go to Nana’s house for lunch or a restaurant for dinner with the family, she behaves well and will eat a wider variety of foods. Why is this happening and how can I get her to be less fussy at home?

The environment and the cues that it provides are one of the most important factors to consider when we are trying to help children to become competent eaters and learn about new foods. Therefore, it is not uncommon for parents to say that their child will eat or behave differently at mealtimes in different environments. Some children will eat joyfully at home, but don’t eat well at school or at a friend’s house, while other children don’t eat well at home, but eat well when visiting relatives or when at childcare. This is typically related to conditioning cues in the environment around them.

Frustratingly for parents, the home environment often becomes a conditioned cue for their child not to eat or to express fussy eating behaviours. Therefore, the first step is to identify the current cues within the home that are triggering picky eating behaviours and modify them. If we want our children to learn new behaviours, we have to change the environment.

Try some of these steps to change the environmental cues in your home:

  • Try changing your child’s chair to a new chair, particularly one that supports their posture at the table
  • Change the position of your child’s chair at the table. If possible, it is best to move them to the opposite side of the table. This will completely change who and what they are looking at during the meal or snack
  • Move everyone in the family’s chairs to different positions, so that even the people your child is looking at during mealtimes has changed
  • Use very plain, non-pattered or non-branded placemats that are used for snacks and mealtimes only. This becomes a cue for your child that it is time to eat.
  • Do the same for plates and utensils – use the same tools from meal to meal and snack to snack
  • Decide on a dedicated spot in the house for eating and try to have all snacks and meals here. It might be the dining table, the kitchen table, or the kitchen bar. Consider the best, most practical spot for your family to have meals and snacks daily. You may choose to change the usual location to change the cue, e.g. from the kitchen to the dining room.
  • If your child gets stuck after you have made progress, this could be a sign that it is time to change another cue – review the above suggestions or reach out for additional support.

Be mindful to only change one or two cues at a time. Too many changes at once can be overwhelming for kids, especially those who are already overwhelmed at mealtimes to begin with.

If you would like advice or support about how to improve your child’s feeding habits at home or while out and about, please contact the practice to arrange an appointment with one of our Feeding Therapists, Georgie Stephen (Naturopath) or Genevieve Ward (Speech Pathologist).