Mealtime can be stressful for all parents, but when your child has special needs, it can be especially difficult. The fast pace of the modern world has made it more challenging than ever to make meals both a healthy and satisfying experience that bonds your family through a daily ritual. With homework, soccer practice, and your own work responsibilities and commitments, mealtime may be something that is rushed more than anything else. Add a child with special needs into the mix, and this can make dinner the most stressful time of the day. 

Yet we know it’s important to prioritize eating with family. It is well-documented that eating together makes families closer, helps children perform better in school, and teaches healthy eating habits. If you’re feeling frustrated and overwhelmed about mealtime in your home, you’re not alone. Fortunately, many parents have had this experience before you, and have found some effective measures to take to make mealtimes something your family can look forward to. Here are some tips for making mealtime less stressful:

Establish Expectations

A child can’t behave well if they don’t know what good behavior is. Make it clear to the whole family about what the expectations are during mealtime. It may help to write down rules and hang them up near the table. Having rules also lessens power struggles. If possible, it may help to establish these rules with your child so they can feel empowered.

Some rules you may establish are:

  • Everyone stays in their seat for at least 15 minutes
  • Food stays on the plate
  • Everyone helps clean up 
  • No interrupting
  • No playing with toys at the table 
  • No cell phones at the table

Involve Your Child in Cooking 

Regardless of your child’s age or ability, there’s a way that they can help prepare a meal. This helps in a variety of ways. They are empowered to take a more active role in meals, which makes them more invested in mealtime. In addition, cooking is a skill that is important for children to learn, and the earlier you can introduce it, the better. Keep it simple and work your way up to giving them bigger responsibilities. For example, your child may not be able to chop vegetables, but they could stir, set out plates, or wipe down the table. 

Be Consistent 

A key part of reducing stress for children is routine. If they can predict when something is going to happen, it’s a lot easier for them to meet your expectations because they know what they will be. This can significantly reduce behavioral problems, particularly if you have a child who is resistant to mealtimes. Serve meals at the same time and place every day. 

If your child needs some added help to understand the mealtime schedule, they may benefit from a written or picture calendar. If you are struggling to get them on board with the structured mealtime, it may help to initially entice them with preferred foods until they get used to the routine. Finally, you might try pairing the eating environment with favorite activities and toys before sitting them down for a meal. 

Schedule Snacks

It’s also helpful to have a structured routine around snacks. If your child grazes on snacks all day, they won’t be as hungry for mealtimes. It also teaches them that it’s okay to skip meals because they can access their preferred foods later. Establishing a snacking routine makes it more likely that your child will be hungry and therefore more motivated to eat at the scheduled times. 

Incentivize Them

Understanding what your child really likes can be a very helpful tool for getting them to participate in mealtime. If your child loves cookies, for example, use this to your advantage. If your child just had a cookie for their snack, it’s going to be a lot harder to entice them to eat a meal and then another cookie. If you keep cookies as something special that they can only enjoy every few days, you can say, “Eat your dinner first, then you can have a cookie,” and it will make an impact. It doesn’t have to be a certain food — playing with a certain toy or watching a particular TV show can also be a great motivator. 

Reward Behaviors 

Positive reinforcement is largely more effective than punishment. You can reward your child for behaving during mealtime with a sticker chart, for example. Be sure to be specific about what behavior you’re rewarding — sitting at the table until everyone finishes their meal, coming to the table when they’re called, or finishing their meal, for example. This way, your child can understand your expectations and how they can earn rewards. You can then use this chart to give your child something they really want (within reason, of course). For instance, when your child gets a sticker every day for a week, you might let them pick where you go for your next outing or an inexpensive new toy. 

Keep Calm

Even with all these tips in place, meals are just not always going to go smoothly. Keep calm and continue to strive towards keeping mealtimes positive. Your children look to you for guidance, and if you are clearly stressed out during dinner, this communicates to them that it is a stressful experience. If your child is misbehaving, try taking a few deep breaths and not engage. It may take time, but mealtime can be a more positive experience for the whole family.

At Evergreen Home Healthcare, we understand the unique needs of children with medical complexities. Because we provide pediatric home health care in Denver, we have experience helping hundreds of families and children with a variety of medical conditions. We would be happy to help your family as well. Contact us today to see if we can help you in Colorado.