Making Mealtime Happy Again

One of the most difficult things about changing your family’s diet can be getting your children to eat the different foods you are suddenly presenting them with. There are several reasons for this. Today let’s talk about the top reasons for unhappy mealtimes, and some suggestions on addressing them.

When food allergies or intolerances get in the way

If you are reading my blog, then you probably have some experience in this! Food allergies can bring so many challenges. It may limit the foods you are able to serve, or cause you to serve some members of the family different food than other members. Additionally, children (or adults) who have had a reaction to certain foods may be wary of trying new ones. This issue is compounded when the individual or parents already have a broken relationship with food (food preferences, unhealthy “dieting mindset,” or eating disorder, for example). All the challenges with this are real, but they can be overcome! And the most effective way to overcome it is to normalize food and eating. This may sound simple, but when you pay attention you may find that there is an unbalanced or unhealthy mindsets of food and eating in your household. Maybe it was the way you grew up, or maybe it is the result of life circumstances (see roles and stress points below). Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does the whole family sit down to eat meals together? How often?

  • Are electronic devices allowed at the table during meals?

  • Is the TV on during a meal?

  • Is anyone allowed to make fun of a person who eats different food?

  • Is anyone allowed to call certain meals “gross” or “weird” instead of saying they “don’t prefer to eat that food”?

  • Does conversation include the words “too much,” “portion size,” “fat” or “watching my weight” instead of focusing on eating healthy and nourishing foods and caring for the body?

It is especially important for the adults in the household to follow healthy mealtime habits like those suggested above. Children will repeat and act on what they see and have been taught.

When the child has strong food preferences

When a child has strong food preferences, it is a sign of imbalanced gut flora. There is something in the microbiome that is craving certain foods, and may even be giving opiate-like feedback to the brain so that child starts eating more and more of that food. And as the wrong flora gets fed, it becomes stronger and more demanding.

While some children may overcome this imbalance and get them out of this destructive cycle, most need the parent’s strong and firm direction to begin feeding the right flora and bring balance back to the body. Rebalancing the gut flora will tackle the root of this problem. But this can be difficult when the child refuses many of the foods that are helpful to them. Thankfully, even small changes over time will make a huge difference if they are continued.

Some ideas to start breaking the cycle are to start putting the right foods in the preferred ones, such as cooking rice with meat stock instead of water, making chicken nuggets from real chicken and soaked grains or nuts instead of buying them, or making marshmallows with gelatin and honey instead of buying them. As the helpful flora gets fed, it will grow stronger and naturally start to crowd out the unhealthy flora. This will cause the child to be less picky with foods! And the cycle is broken!

When the parent/child roles get reversed

This can happen in any family, but it happens frequently in families that have a child with special needs or special services. A diagnosis of special needs, or even special food needs, can cause a lot of anxiety and fear. This may lead to the parents catering to that child, giving them anything they want to get them to do certain things, or to eat at least something. This is a very tricky situation.

The standard parenting techniques may not work the same, or even at all. Even seasoned parents may find that it is difficult to get their child to complete or tolerate even simple tasks. And on top of it, it’s exhausting (more on that next).

The problem comes when the child starts to direct and run the family dynamics, instead of the parents. This imbalance makes the child feel unsafe, and creates even more chaos in the home. The solution for this is simple, but may be difficult to carry out—reverse the roles back.

It takes a united decision on the part of the parents to make a change, and that change has to be consistently carried out dozens to hundreds of times a day until the new habit and routine is established.

Is this impossible? No. In fact, most of the time it only requires attention and commitment for a few days before it starts becoming the new normal for the way the household runs. And when it does, the child will be happier and feel safer, the parents will feel how they are more in control, and other children in the house will feel the rebalance, which often leads to less fighting, arguing and attention seeking behaviors.

When stress and overwhelm have taken their toll

When someone in the house requires things that are outside the cultural “norm,” life takes more effort. When that is coupled with a schedule full of doctors visits and therapy appointments, more time in the kitchen, and perhaps extra time to get dressed or leave the house, stress and overwhelm can soar.

We were made to be able to handle stress for short periods of time, but when that stress continues, it takes a toll on our bodies and our minds. This is often seen first in the parents, but the stress can eventually spread to the others in the household. This dynamic can make everything more difficult, attitudes more irritable, and cause pleasant things like mealtimes or family outings to be stressful and exhausting.

This can be addressed by making small changes to reduce stress. Often those changes start with a choice to do less. This looks different for every family. Doing less is not about limiting, it is about choosing what is best for your family. A full schedule and stress is not best for your children, even if they can’t do that extra sport at school.

Together, as a family, discuss what your family schedule is going to look like. As you do this, talk about emotions—stress, anger, disappointment, fear, hope, enjoyment. Let each family member share what is important to them and what they are feeling. Don’t suppress or punish any emotion, but acknowledge the response that that person is having to the situation as valid, and then talk about what changes could be made to help that person address the cause of their emotions.

For More Mealtime Tips

Mealtime can be a huge challenge for so many families. As I have been practicing at Be Well Clinic, I have helped many families through this, and discovered how important and difficult it can be to have a happy mealtime. From my practice, as well helping with my eight younger siblings (including one with special needs), I share techniques with parents and families. But one-on-one can only help so many people so fast.

To reach more people, I have been working with my colleague, Monica Corrado of Simply Being Well to create an online course designed to give small, achievable steps for parents to follow to make impactful changes.   Although the title of this course is Feeding Your Autistic Child, the information it contains is helpful if your family is experiencing any of the difficult mealtime situations we talked about today. It is not only for families with a child on the autism spectrum. Everything in it is helpful to anyone who has a child with special needs OR with special food restrictions OR simply a picky eater.

The first of this 5-course series will be available on July 1st. If you are interested, head over to for more details, and to sign up to receive updates and information as the courses are released. You can also follow Feeding Your Autistic Child on Facebook.

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