5 tips for calming anxiety around mealtimes

By Beth Bonfiglio

How to recognise anxiety around mealtimes 

If your anxiety is affecting mealtimes with your child, and if you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you really should read this article: 

  • Do mealtimes with your child make you feel anxious? 
  • Do your emotions spill over and disrupt the feeding process? 
  • Do you sometimes feel like you’re losing control of the feeding routine? 
  • Are you anxious about meeting your little one’s nutritional needs? 
  • Do you feel overwhelmed by expectations and responsibilities surrounding mealtimes? 
  • Are your emotions clouding your judgement and affecting your behaviour – and consequently the behaviour of your child? 
  • Is your child responding negatively to you at mealtimes because of your anxiety? 

When you were pregnant, you probably imagined mealtimes with your child to be about blissful bonding over cubes of cucumber rather than kitchen chaos. I think there’s a huge disconnect between what we think parenting is going to be like and the challenging realities – and feeding time with babies and toddlers can bring out the worst in us (and them!), especially if you’re feeling anxious. But trust me, there is a way forward. 

When it comes to parenting babies and toddlers, two of the most frustrating areas involve sleeping and eating and, unfortunately, these just happen to be the two things that parents have very little control over. And when we think we’re losing control, we respond in ways that are totally counterproductive. 

A parent who’s lost control often raises their voice and behaves irrationally. But how can our children learn to manage emotional stress if their role models haven’t figured it out for themselves? 

I think we’re burdened with the misconception that we have all the power to change a child’s decision. The truth is, we can only shape their decisions by leading through example. Non-responsive feeding practices such as scolding, threatening, bribing, force feeding and hiding foods will, in all likelihood, reinforce a child’s picky eater behaviour and build anxiety around mealtimes. 

The good news is that when it comes to food, we can influence their decisions by writing positive neuropathways (and of course, always loving our children freely and unconditionally!) 

A parent who feels anxious often fears the worst, instead of embracing the journey where the child flourishes by discovering, learning and making their own decisions. 

So how do we go about calming adult anxiety around mealtimes? 

Understanding the cause of your anxiety is half the battle. It’s not easy, but by changing the paradigm around mealtimes, you can change your world. 

Here are my five tried-and-tested tips for managing anxiety around mealtimes: 

#1 Understand what is in your control 

Let’s start by chatting about things that aren’t in your control. 

You need to accept that you can’t control what food gets past your child’s lips. 

Over the years, I’ve seen many parents mistakenly try and feed their child according to the size and expectation of their own grown-up appetites. The fact is, a child will be satisfied by eating a tablespoon of food at each mealtime that corresponds to their age. For example, a two-year-old will be satisfied on two tablespoons of oats in the morning. Feeding beyond a child’s appetite will very quickly lead to the child feeling uncomfortable and as soon as that happens, they will attempt to take back control with non-responsive behaviour. 

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