Reducing Mealtime Distractions
For many families, tablets, toys, or TV shows have become an important factor in the success of their child's mealtime. There are many children that absolutely will not eat without a distraction. We often hear people say, “children will eat when they’re hungry” and recommend that you “wait them out”, but this does not work for some children. Some children will continue to refuse food which can quickly become dangerous and worrisome. Regardless of the situation (with an exception we discuss below), it is always a goal to remove distractions from mealtimes because we don’t want kids to be distracted from eating. These distractions decrease their awareness and they miss valuable learning opportunities and exposure to food.
Learning to eat is a developmental process that involves all of our senses. Children learn about foods by looking, touching, smelling, and tasting. This exploration leads to acceptance of new foods and promotes self-feeding. When children are preoccupied with a toy, they often do not notice the food in front of them and miss the learning experiences that mealtimes offer. How many times have you sat down to watch a movie with some popcorn, look down a few minutes later, and all the popcorn is gone without even considering what or how much you’re eating?
Children don’t learn and explore foods until they’re more comfortable with them. If you’re looking for a way to start getting your child comfortable with more foods (and avoid other mealtime distractions), try incorporating food play and reducing mealtime distractions as you go:
Make sure your child is comfortable playing with foods they like (check out strategies for sensory play with food here)
Then start working up to new foods during food play
As your child can sit with foods without distraction during food play, then you can start getting rid of mealtime distractions all together. It takes time but food play can make the learning fun!
There’s really no right or wrong when it comes to food play, just have fun!
There are times where distractions may still be necessary and can still be beneficial for the child, and these really depend on the child. First, if a child is consistently refusing to eat and second, if a child is showing anxiety around new foods. Sometimes when children are distracted, they are more likely to accept a new food or slight change to an existing food. Distractions often help people through situations that are difficult. Feeding comes naturally for some and can be very stressful for others, so providing them with a distraction can sometimes reduce their anxiety enough to allow them to tolerate a slight change in the taste or texture of their food. If you’re struggling with your child’s food intake and/or food repertoire, a feeding therapist can help identify any underlying causes and help build an individualized treatment plan to support your child’s feeding needs.
Overall though, it’s beneficial to minimize distractions and work toward eliminating them. Ideally mealtime is a time for families to spend time together, enjoy each other’s company, and share a meal. It can be a process but we have put together some tips to help you get there!
Keep mealtimes to a short, defined amount of time. Aim for about 20 minutes so the meal keeps their attention span. Visual timers are also helpful in understanding that once the timer is finished then mealtime is over and play time can begin.
Space out meals (including snacks) to every 2.5-3 hours. This will increase the likelihood of children coming back to the table with an appetite. If your child is hungry, they may be more focused and motivated by food and not really need distractions.
It’s important to always offer a preferred or “safe” food alongside any new foods that you want to introduce. If a child sees a plate full of new or nonpreferred foods, it may cause them to feel overwhelmed or anxious. Limiting the amount of food on the plate at one time can also help in reducing anxiety; you can always reload the plate as you go.
Make mealtime fun and entertaining so that your child isn’t looking for a tablet or toy! Mealtime is a great time to either catch up on the happenings of the day or talk about the plans for the day ahead. You can also talk about your food - is it crunchy? Smooth? What is it shaped like? Who can crunch the loudest?! If you are able to distract your child with conversation, or engage them in a conversation about their food, they may be less interested in other distractions!
Try mealtime-related distractions instead of a tablet, TV, or toys. Mealtime related distractions are anything related to food and eating. For example, there are many options for plates that can make eating more into more of a game! The SpinMeal plate is a great option.
There may still be times that you need the distractions and that’s ok! Try starting mealtime with no distractions and see how it goes. If your child begins to demonstrate anxious behavior or refuses to eat, introduce a distractor to help reduce anxiety and continue the meal. Gradually work toward increasing the number of minutes that your child can eat at the table before using the distractor, and make sure you clearly explain your expectations to your child as you go.
A mealtime free of distraction may seem difficult to attain but we know you can do it! We are happy to help you and your family along the way. Contact us if you have any questions or concerns related to your child’s development, or if mealtimes are a big stressor for your family.