Why do picky eaters hate dinner time?
It’s one of the most common comments I hear as a Feeding Therapist.
“My child won’t eat anything at dinner time. It’s always a battle to make him eat anything”
“She just refuses to eat anything at dinner time except plain pasta. It doesn’t matter what I put in front of her, she just says NO”
“He just gets up and walks away. If I try and make him stay, he cries or has a tantrum”
What is it about dinner time that toddlers find so hard? Why do picky eaters seem to be at their MOST picky and fussy at dinner?
To understand why our kids are finding dinner time hard work, let’s look at some of the factors that come into play that are unique to dinner. Once you can work out why your toddler is finding dinner time hard, then it’s easier to come up with strategies that will help your child (and you, and the rest of the family) to enjoy dinner time more.
Here are my TOP FOUR reasons why picky eaters hate dinner (there are loads of reasons that can contribute, these are just my top 4).
1. They are tired. So tired.
By the end of the day, everyone is tired and often our patience has worn thin. It’s also time for our sensory system and body to reboot and rest.
Have you ever stayed awake for more than 24 hours? What about 2 days? What about FIVE DAYS? When an adult is ready for dinner, we have been awake for about 12 hours. In the scheme of our life (let’s say, 35 years), that means we’ve been awake for about 0.004% of our life. Nothing really. Well, in the scheme of a 3 year olds life, by the time it’s dinnertime, it’s the adult equivalent of if we had been awake for OVER FIVE DAYS. So it’s no wonder they are a little grouchy and irrational and not in the mood to try broccoli.
2. We expect them to eat new things.
Usually, picky eaters get given new foods to try at dinner time. A bit of the family meal, some new vegetables, a bowl of soup. It makes sense on a practical level – dinner is pretty varied from day to day so it’s easy to just give them a bit of whatever is being made for dinner. Generally, the other meals of the day that little kids eat are pretty predictable and don’t vary all that much. As adults, we seek out more variety with our meals, especially dinner.
We have the luxury of thinking about what WE would like to eat, and over the years we learn how to cook dishes to suit our tastes. We buy the ingredients, we know what they all taste like, we know we enjoy them. BUT the food at dinner time is unpredictable for a toddler, and they don’t have any control over what is served. Toddlers crave predictability, repetition, and they love feeling like they are in control. Add in to this that the food being served is usually a sensory challenge (green stuff! Squishy stuff! Wet slop! Strong smells!) and they are SO TIRED and it can be a recipe for dinner time disaster.
3. They aren’t hungry.
Adults generally look forward to eating dinner. Often, if we are chasing after kids or at work, we don’t necessarily sit down for snacks and a proper lunch. Kids have often eaten four meals (breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea) by the time dinner comes. Particularly if they have been at school or daycare and have eaten a decent sized lunch.
Many cultures don’t eat a big dinner right before bed, but our Western culture we do. But perhaps our kids are tuning in to their bodies and their hunger cycles a bit better than we do! For many children, dinner time is not their big meal of the day and this is ok (and you might notice they eat a huge breakfast instead).
4. Dinner time has become associated with misery.
So many parents of picky eaters will say to me that they dread dinner time, and with good reason. They know that there will be battles, maybe tears, probably a tantrum, food refusal, and all those frustrating behaviours like throwing food or getting up and leaving the table. My question then is always – if you are dreading dinner time, how do you think your child is feeling? Do you think they are looking forward to it too? Often when tackling picky eating, I recommend a shake-up of the dinner time routine. It’s helpful for everyone to get out of the rut and break those learnt negative feelings about sitting at the dinner table. Keep in mind though, that it will take some time for your child to trust and enjoy in any new dinner time routines because they don’t understand straight away that the expectations have shifted.
There are obviously many more contributing factors to dinner time battles – these are just my top four most common. Which factor do you think is affecting your child at dinner time? Are they tired? Seeking control? Just not hungry? Or do they simply dread the dinner table and everything that comes with that daily battle? I’d love to know what your experiences of the dinner table are!
Holly is a qualified paediatric Speech Pathologist who specialises in Feeding Therapy. She has worked with hundreds of children over her career to help them learn how to eat, drink and enjoy their mealtimes. For more information about Holly and the services she offers, visit www.taste-buds.com.au
Images sourced from Pexel.