For many families, toys, TV or an i-pad at meals has become an important crutch on which their child’s growth and development hinge. They know their child simply will not eat without a distraction.
For some children, ‘holding out’ and waiting until they get hungry enough to eat works. But for others ‘holding out’ does not work (find a chart on the differences between typical picky eating and Selective Eating Disorder here). These children will starve themselves. Their parents’ fear of taking away distractions at meals and watching their child waste away is real. So, telling parents to just take away TV sets up this battle that’s not helpful for anyone.
It is always a goal, though, to remove distractions from mealtimes. The reasoning behind taking distractions like TV and toys out of eating is simply that we don’t want kids to be distracted from eating. Meals and snacks are huge learning times and if kids are distracted, they may be maintaining the calories they need, but they’re learning to disengage from food rather than engage with it. We want kids to learn from and about food as well as to learn from others at the table during meals.
If distractions are necessary for a child to eat, there are underlying issues with the child’s relationship with food. The distractions have become part of a strategy to make mealtimes work/get a child to eat. The catch-22 is that in order to work on expanding a child’s diet we need them to learn to be present with food.
Once a child can be present with food they can start to learn about it and begin to foster feelings of safety, interest and curiosity about food. It’s great if this can happen at mealtimes, if not, let’s work up to it!
This is where food play comes in. If your child will not sit down with food without a distraction, start doing food play with a favorite food. The first goal of food play here is to just be present with food without the distractions. When your child is comfortable sitting with a food they like, then start working up to new foods during food play.
Once you know your child can sit with foods without distraction during food play, then you can start getting rid of mealtime distractions. Nothing happens overnight. Distractions evolve as a strategy for a reason and it takes time to learn new skills, too. Food play can make the learning less of a mealtime battle!
However you choose to play, have fun and happy food play!