What to do When Anxiety Creeps into Mealtimes

In my last blog post I wrote about what happens when worry creeps into mealtimes, and how to spot when your child is feeling anxious about eating. If you’ve read that too much worrying at mealtimes can reduce appetite, lower children’s curiosity, and increase sensory sensitivity, then you’re probably asking - what can we do about it?

Here are a few tips for managing anxiety at the table (both yours, and your child's!):

  • Identify your worries - is there a general feeling of anxiety lingering? Or can you identify what your worries are? If you can pin down something specific like “I’m worried my child is too skinny” or “I’m worried they are missing out on vitamins” then these are things that can be addressed. A good GP or dietitian can assess your child’s weight, height and nutrient intake and can recommend supplements if needed. Knowing your child is getting what they need can be really reassuring - helping you to relax at meals. 
  • Take a moment to get grounded - arriving in from work or school and rushing straight into a stressful meal means everyone is tetchy and on “high alert”. Take two or three minutes before you put the food on the table to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. 
  • Help your child feel grounded too - Some breathing activities like blowing bubbles, blowing a pinwheel, or singing a song can help your child relax before mealtimes too. 
  • Always serve 1-2 accepted foods - serving some foods that you know your child can manage, alongside other family foods, helps to reduce their anxiety. If your child is coming to a table full of foods they don’t eat yet - anxiety shoots up, and they may be reluctant to even join you at the table. Serving accepted foods can also help you feel more relaxed - knowing they have a better chance of eating.
  • Support your child’s autonomy - allow your child to decide how much and what to eat, from what you have provided. If they are pressured or encouraged to eat “a few more bites” than they want, or a new food that feels really scary for them, they may feel a lack of autonomy. Reduced autonomy = increased anxiety, and they may try to gain back a sense of control by clinging even more rigidly to a set list of foods. 
  • Mealtime conversation -  when parents are worried about their child’s eating, mealtime conversation turns to food “just have another pea, why don’t you want to try this piece of carrot? Mmm...I’m enjoying this stew” etc. Mealtimes become stressful and less enjoyable when the entire focus is on food. So avoid talking about the food - instead chat about your day, plans for tomorrow, your favourite movies, your child’s hobbies etc. 
  • Family style/buffet style serving - new or disliked foods on your child’s plate can be extremely daunting and can throw them off their entire meal. For us, it’s like coming to the table to find a giant cockroach on your plate - still feel like eating? Start with an empty plate, place all of the foods in the centre of the table, and allow your child to serve themselves. This helps your child to approach the table feeling much more relaxed, and in control. 

I hope this gives you somewhere to start if you are trying to reduce anxiety at mealtimes! Any other ideas? Please get in touch and let me know - I’d love to hear from you.