Are mealtimes a cause of stress in your household?

Here is my 6 step plan on how to serve it up and hopefully enjoy that family meal.

How were meals served up when you were a child?

We were all little once and as parents now, we serve up meals on what we know and often how we were served as children. This could be pre-plating and sitting on the couch/dinner table or Mediterranean served with foods in the middle of a dining table or kitchen bench with self serving.

I grew up with the latter and my husband grew up with the former style of eating. Now as parents, we alternate on how we serve up and often use both methods…. Because they both work!

But the challenge comes when you have a cautious eater – fussy or feeding aversion, your child may be the one who refuses the family meal and eats something else. So what should you do? Plate them up with a different meal? Plate up the family meal? Do a combination?

I appreciate the challenge – this IS tricky! Because not only are you balancing their emotions (and tantrums) but also their nutrition. And it’s very stressful as a parent to go to bed knowing your child is hungry because they didn’t eat their dinner.

Will you try something for me please? Can you promise me that you will try it consistently for at least 6 months and then review? That will give you a good baseline of whether your child is able to cope with the new method.

Step 1: Look at all food as equal – get your brain out of the idea that dinner foods are dinner and breakfast foods are breakfast. All food is nutritious and equal.

Step 2: Now group the food into 3 categories –

  1. preferred food that your child eats eg bread
  2. foods they eat sometimes eg cheese
  3. foods they you enjoy eating (and they don’t eat) eg pasta and bolognaise sauce

Step 3: deconstruct your meals (the c) group in step 2) – for example if you enjoy eating chicken stir fry – serve it up in a deconstructed way eg chicken in a bowl, veggies lined up on a plate and rice in a separate bowl. This gives your child the chance to look at the foods separately and explore them on their own. A great strategy for children with delayed chewing skills because they can oral motor wise work through the foods one at a time. This strategy is also great for children with sensory issues – because nothing is touching!

Step 4: Serve all foods – a- b -c groups in the middle of the table (or serving bench). Encourage everyone to serve themselves including your little cautious eater. That way it’s no longer “their food” vs “your food” – it’s everyone’s food to share and enjoy together.

Step 5: Don’t talk about the food – talk about every day topics like what you did today, what is happening tomorrow. If you’re stuck – these conversational cards by the Growth Mindset are great especially for older children.

Step 6 – breathe – enjoy the food and the conversation. Don’t ask your child to eat anything (eg one more bite – then you can have….). When the meal is finished, that’s it for 2 hours – no snacks until the next eating time. You can of course choose to all share dessert together and again think outside the box with dessert – it’s not always ice cream! It could be a cheese platter, fruit platter or one of my kids’ favourites – a nut platter.

This philosophy of eating is based on Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility and the mantra of parents provide – children decide. You can find out more about Ellyn Satter’s evidence based work here:

Hope you found this post helpful, I hope that it gives you ideas on how to tackle those challenging meals. Until next time….

Wishing you happy and connected mealtimes


Paediatric Feeding Speech Pathologist @ Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology

This website and information on this blog post is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant or intended to replace Speech Pathology assessment and management nor medical or nutritional care for a child. It is recommended that you discuss any concerns or questions you might have with your Speech Pathologist and managing Doctor and develop an individualised team plan specifically for your child.

About the author of this blog post

Valerie Gent is an Australian based Speech Pathologist with 17 years experience in Paediatric Feeding. She has opened a private practice called ‘Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology’ in 2013 for Newcastle based babies and children with feeding difficulties. Valerie is passionate about working in the area of paediatric feeding and special needs and has been involved in the teaching and training of Australian Speech Pathology University students and allied health professionals. Prior to starting her private practice, she worked in acute paediatric hospitals in neonatal intensive care units, feeding clinics and clinics for children with special needs for 10 years. You can find out more about Valerie Gent and ‘Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology’ via her website and Facebook page SpeechPathology or email her on

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