If you’ve been struggling and scolding your child at mealtimes – and especially so during the "circuit breaker" – you aren’t alone. Getting kiddo to “open wide for the spoon plane” is the most stressful thing for parents to do, according to a 2019 survey done by Abbott of around 500 parents in Singapore.
In the electronic survey, one in two parents and caregivers admitted to feeling stressed during mealtimes for a few reasons: The time taken by their child to finish the meal; the sense of helplessness or frustration when their child does not eat properly; and worries about their child not getting a balanced diet for growth.
But stressing over your child’s weight may be unfounded. While it generally triples by the first year of life, the weight gain slows down “during the second year of life onwards,” said Dr Michelle Tan, a paediatrician and consultant with National University Hospital’s Paediatric Gastroenterology, Nutrition and Hepatology Division. “Your toddler may gain about four to six pounds (1.8kg to 2.7kg) a year.”
HOW LONG IS TOO LONG TO FINISH EATING?
The majority of the parents surveyed (64 per cent) shared that the duration their children take to finish a meal is one of the top stressors during mealtimes. And there are grounds for parents to worry if their preschoolers or kindergarteners take too long to finish their food.
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“The calories burned during a prolonged mealtime duration may end up being more than the calories consumed by the child during the meal. Overtime, the child’s growth may be stunted,” said Dr Tan, who developed and reviewed the survey with Abbott.
So, how long is too long for Junior to eat up? A one- or two-year-old can take about 30 minutes to 45 minutes to finish his meal, said Dr Tan. “For three- to five-year-olds who are easily distracted by their surroundings, mealtimes can drag on for an hour. However, the well-disciplined ones can finish well within 30 minutes.”
The rule of thumb: Keep mealtime to no more than 30 minutes, advised Dr Tan. This is to minimise the stress for parent and child, and provide both parties with “the much-needed relief”. “It would be beneficial for the family if a mealtime routine is established. When a child is familiar with a mealtime routine, it becomes a calmer experience for everyone involved,” said Dr Tan.
WHAT IS YOUR FEEDING STYLE?
As it turns out, the way you feed your child can affect his response at mealtimes. In the survey, 67 per cent of parents said they used a responsive feeding style, which lets the child decide when and how much he wants to eat. The parent or caregiver then guides the child to make healthy food choices.
“Such a relationship is often healthy, and the child is often found to be able to consume a well-balanced diet,” said Dr Tan. “This is encouraged as the parent is able to set limits for the child, respond to the child’s hunger cues, and guide the child’s eating habits.”
The majority of the parents surveyed (64 per cent) shared that the duration their children take to finish a meal is one of the top stressors during mealtimes.
But for the responsive feeding style to work, you can’t just leave a bowl of food in front of your preschooler or kindergartener, and expect him to eat up. The parent or caregiver has to be engaged, and not be on the phone or in the next room doing the laundry. Praising your child for his positive behaviour is important, as is your ability to stop feeding him when he indicates that he is full.
Interestingly, Dr Tan noted that in clinical settings, that is not the style often used by parents. In fact, the majority of local parents actually adopt the permissive approach. This means no limits are set and any demand from the child is acceded to. Satiation cues may also be ignored and as a result, the child may end up eating foods lower in most nutrients except fat, she said.
Then, there’s the other end of the spectrum where some parents force their child to eat whether they want to or not. “The parent or caregiver may not be able to read the child’s hunger and satiation cues well” in this authoritarian style, and as such, there may be “over-feeding or under-feeding”, said Dr Tan.
MANAGING MEALTIME MELTDOWNS
Kids under the age of five don’t always bite the spoon-plane bait, and mealtime meltdowns are the last things exhausted parents want to deal with three times a day. What can you do if you have a tyke who won’t sit still or keeps spitting out each mouthful?
“When parents have tried a variety of solutions and their child still does not seem to catch up on growth, they should speak to their doctor,” said Dr Tan. “There are definite windows of opportunity for growth in childhood, so it is important to spot signs of growth deviations early and seek a paediatrician or dietician’s help.”
Here are some tips from Dr Tan to help your child eat better.
- Involve your child in the grocery shopping and food prep
When it’s safe to go out together, the supermarket is a good place to introduce your child to different kinds of vegetables, fruits and meats, and get him intrigued about how they taste. When you get home, involve him in simple tasks such as reading the recipe, whisking eggs or measuring the ingredients.
- Create a mealtime structure
Aim to give your child three main meals and one or two snacks a day. Separate each meal and snack time with two to three hours, so that your child will become hungry before the next bite.
- Don’t force your child to eat
If he takes longer than 30 minutes to eat, gradually shorten his mealtimes. Also, explain to him that his food will be taken away after a certain amount of time.
- No electronic gadgets at the dining table
Instead of placing the smartphone, tablet, toys or television in front of your child during mealtimes, remove them and focus on having conversations. It also creates a bonding experience for the whole family.
- Systematically introduce new food
If you want your child to try a new food, be a role model and try it yourself. Add a small amount of a new food to your child’s favourite food. If he refuses the new food, offer just one bite without bribing or forcing.
- Be responsive to your child
Set the rules at the dining table but be able to respond accordingly to your child’s behaviour to encourage him or back off if he is not in the right mood on that day.