Jamaica Plain Dietitian, Nutritionist, Author Explains How to End Mealtime Meltdowns

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Jamaica Plain resident Stephanie Meyers is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and her new book End the Mealtime Meltdown will be published this spring.

Stephanie Meyers

Meyers will be presenting a virtual event with The Rashi School on six key parenting practices for raising healthy eaters. Families Eatin Well is free and open to the public, and will be on March 21 from 7 to 8 pm. Please register here for the event.

Meyers answered questions from Jamaica Plain News about her work, her new book, and how the heck to get kids to eat healthy.

Q: When is your new book End the Mealtime Meltdown available? Where will it be available?

Meyers: It’s available for pre-order now on Amazon and will be in local bookstores May 1 (including hopefully JP Papercuts – I’ve been in touch with Kate). 

Q: What is End the Mealtime Meltdown about? What's a mealtime meltdown?

Meyers: It’s about the stress and challenges parents face when trying to get kids eating well and a novel approach for solving those problems by changing what you say about food. 

End the Mealtime Meltdown introduces the concept of “table talk,” which is what you say to your child about their eating while they’re eating. Phrases like:

“Take two more bites if you want dessert.”

“But you didn’t even try it!”

“That’s enough pasta. You need to eat some vegetables too.”  

End the Mealtime Meltdown serves up eight different categories of familiar, yet largely unexamined phrases parents say to kids during meals and shows that what you’re saying may be sabotaging your efforts to instill healthy habits. It’s a practical guide to discover the communication skills you need to end conflict over food at your table.

The book includes: 

  • Specific guidance on what NOT to say to kids as they eat
  • Acknowledgement that conflict at the dinner table is a normal part of parenting
  • Specific words, scripts, and detailed instruction on how to encourage conversation that positively impacts eating behavior and development
  • Real-life stories showing how the Table Talk Method can ease parent distress
  • Instructions on how to tailor this approach to fit your individual needs
  • Tools to help kids develop a healthy relationship with body and food that will last a lifetime

Q: You have two school-age daughters, what is mealtime like in your house? 

Meyers: That varies day-to-day and according to what’s being served, but I’m lucky that my job involves two things I love: family and food. Finding ways to make those things work together is something I truly enjoy. In many ways I think my kids are my best teachers and I definitely live my mission at my own family table daily. 

Q: Are we talking breakfast, lunch, and dinner? 

Meyers: Yes, all the above! Every meal and snack is a fresh chance to mindfully relate to your child over food. This means even if you feel like it’s not going well, you still have thousands of opportunities to practice making changes. Learning to do that helps you teach your child skills of healthy eating. 

Q: What are good ways to help develop healthy eating skills for children?

Meyers: First, it’s important to know what skills we’re talking about and then you can learn effective ways to nurture their development. Examples of specific skills I help parents learn to coach in their kids include:

  • Being more flexible as an eater; exploring new foods from kids’ own volition and understanding how to deal with it when food feels displeasing. 
  • Recognizing hunger and fullness; knowing how much food to take and eat. 
  • Enjoying food based on conscious awareness of what will satisfy you in that moment. 

A primary way to cultivate these skills in your child is to ask them more than you tell them while they eat. The central theme of my book is inspiring curiosity and connection and teaching parents the optimal questions to ask to get kids exploring new foods rather than digging in their heels as eaters.  

Q: What if you're a parent/guardian who can't cook? Or don't have time to cook?

Meyers: Cooking skills are not a prerequisite! In fact, many of my clients say they aren’t confident cooks or able to spend much time in the kitchen. If that’s you, consider it an opportunity to give your child more autonomy as an eater. In fact, research shows kid eat more of foods they help to prepare. A lot of my clients buy age-appropriate kitchen tools (like knives designed for kids of different ages) and devote 15-minutes a week to chopping vegetables with their child that the whole family can eat (with dip!) as an after-school snack. An excellent resource for all things kid-cooking related is my friend Heather Staller, of Happy Kids Kitchen. She’s a chef, cookbook author and mom of two who has excellent videos (including one on teaching knife skills to kids!). I highly recommend her website, blog and classes happykidskitchen.com.

Q: How has the pandemic affected mealtime in homes? 

Meyers: The pandemic has impacted eating for families in countless ways, most concerning of all is the exacerbation of food insecurity issues that pre-dated Covid-19. According to the latest data from Feeding America, 1 in 6 kids in the U.S. experienced hunger in 2021. For more information and specific action steps you can take to advocate against hunger today, visit feedingamericaaction.org/act.

I think another piece of what you’re asking here, however, is about trends in terms of parenting kids eating during the pandemic. Unfortunately, that isn’t great news either. For example, a study of 72 ethnically/racially and socioeconomically diverse families published in January 2022 found disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic led to less supportive feeding dynamics between parents and young kids. [Appetite, Vol 168, Jan 1, 2022) 

Q: Do you provide suggestions for easy meals? If so, what are some easy meals?

Meyers: I love easy meals! Although “easy” is a relative term. What I consider easy might not be the same as others, but here’s my definition and a few resources. 

My criteria for “easy meals” incudes: 

  • Quick to prepare (< 30 minutes)
  • Enjoyed by most eaters in my family and 
  • The least amount of clean-up afterward (I’m a big fan of one pot meals!) 

I’m also look for veggie-forward recipes, so here are a few of my favorites: 

Veggie Fried Rice: cookieandkate.com/vegetable-fried-rice-recipe

Many-Veggie Vegetable Soup: loveandlemons.com/vegetable-soup

Soba Noodle Bowl (I add super firm tofu cubes to this): acouplecooks.com/easy-soba-noodle-bowl

Q: Is it important to eat at a table with each other without devices such as phones or TV?

Meyers: Yes, for kids and adults! Tuning in to hunger, fullness and sensory experiences of food is best done without the competing distraction of screens. I encourage people to adopt a tech-free table, but I also recognize that isn’t something everyone can achieve overnight. It’s okay to start with one meal at a time and move toward screen-free eating over time. 

It’s also worth identifying the purpose of screen use during meals. For example, I have many clients for whom virtual meals with friends and family during the pandemic have been a lifeline. That is different to me than scrolling social media or watching a show while you eat. 

Q: How do you get children to eat new foods?

Meyers: By implementing communication skills that foster curiosity and connection. I teach parents how to engage the five senses: sight, smell, touch, sound, and flavor, and ask kids effective questions like, “What do you notice about broccoli?” This question is important even if your child doesn’t eat broccoli (yet) because it helps them dig into what’s going on for them with broccoli in that moment. When your child says broccoli is “gross,” I encourage you to ask, “Which part?” and allow your child’s direct experience to unfold rather than trying to override it. 

Healthy eating habits in kids don’t form by parents trying to convince them of anything. They also don’t grow from making kids try a series of one-off bites. Healthy eating habits come from inviting kids inside their own experiences. Learning how to do that as a parent can be a real game changer when it comes to feeding kids.

Q: How do you get children to eat vegetables? Are there vegetables that children like more than others?

Meyers: Every child is different and repeat exposures certainly help (you may have heard it takes 15 or more tries for kids to “like” a new food). But it’s frustrating as a parent to serve a vegetable twenty-odd times and still feel like nothing is changing in terms of your child’s receptivity.

Most clients I meet have already tried cutting vegetables into cute shapes, placing them alongside “safe foods” and/or using no-thank-you bowls (where kids can discard foods they don’t enjoy). Even if these strategies work for you, what many parents don’t realize is what they’re saying to their child during those veggie encounters is counterproductive. 

Parents often say:

“It takes lots of times trying before you learn to like new foods,” or 

“You might like red peppers this time – you’ve never had them this way!” 

“Do you want to try the cauliflower with the yummy sauce on top?”

These phrases don’t move the needle in terms of getting kids interested in veggies. In fact, they often do the opposite by overlooking the child’s direct experience in the moment. Chapters 6 through 8 in my book cover specifics of what you can say to shift things like veggie resistance at your family table. Some examples of things you can say to your child when you’re working to engage them with vegetables, include: 

“What are you noticing about [name of food]?”

“Tell me about the [name of food] for you…”

“I’m curious how this [name of food] feels/looks/smells to you?”

“What would help the [name of food]?”  

Q: What is food rejection?

Meyers: Unwillingness to eat food and/or explore it with one of the five senses. It’s worth noting that food rejection is a normal part of eating. We all have foods we’d rather not eat never mind see, smell, see or touch. Not wanting or enjoying a certain food isn’t the problem. It’s how you respond to that food rejection that makes the biggest difference as a parent. 

Q: Is it bad to use food as motivation or penalize behavior?

Meyers: Yes! Here’s an article I wrote on how to stop doing that. 😊

Q: What's the best way to have a healthy relationship with junk food, desserts, and candy?

Meyers: First, by understanding how you talk to yourself about food and learning how to not categorize foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy.” In Chapter 9 of my book, I address this in depth, providing scripts parents can use to undo habituated patterns on this topic. I share an example of a preschooler cutting and pasting pictures of food onto a poster with two columns: “healthy” vs. “unhealthy.” That child comes home from school saying they’re sad they can’t bake cookies anymore because, “cookies are bad for you.”   

When this happens, I teach parents to ask questions like: 

“What do you notice about cookies?” and

“Instead of thinking about cookies as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy,’ what’s your experience of their flavor? How do cookies look? Smell? Feel? And sound? 

“What’s it like eating cookies warm from the oven? Or dipping them in cold milk?”

“How do these things compare to labeling cookies “healthy” or “unhealthy?” 

So, step number one is working to get rid of morality (good vs. bad) talk about food, which for most of us, becomes an ongoing piece of work. 

Second, eat the things you love - dessert and candy included - with mindful awareness. In Chapter 5 of my book, I teach readers how to practice five senses-based eating, (a part of mindful eating) and offer specific table talk cues to accompany that process. 

When my book comes out May 1 readers will be able to access an audio recording of a mindful eating exercise to try with their kids, because mindful eating is one of those things you must try out in your own life (versus just read out).  

Eating with mindful awareness enables you to feel the satisfaction you’re meant to have with food and liberate yourself from the diet-culture notion that you must restrict yourself to a certain “portion” of dessert. 

Q: What else would you like people to know about yourself and your work?

Meyers: I’m passionate about helping all people, not only parents, find a happy and harmonious relationship with food. I enjoy working with folks one-on-one and leading interactive workshops. My practice and services are all virtual now so it’s even easier to deliver group programs to people in all different places. I’m having fun presenting in workplace, school, and community settings, so if you have a group that might benefit from hearing new ways to parent around food, I welcome you reaching out to see if we can work together!