Sometimes, a bit of tough love is needed in parenting...
My older child, now seven years old, has been a slow eater for most of his life. Even when his only food was breastmilk, he would take his own sweet time. When solids were introduced, the real battle started.
It's not that he didn't like food, he was just really, really slow. When I was still spoonfeeding him, he had this odd habit of pursing his mouth the moment the spoon came near. This resulted in only a quarter of the spoon's contents going into his mouth. Because I was a first-time mum then and didn't know any better, I painstakingly persisted and a meal fed this way could take anywhere between one, to one and a half hours.
Things on the time front didn't improve when he started eating by himself. He would sing to himself, talk, run around the table, fidget and as a result, take hours to eat.
As you can imagine, mealtimes were very frustrating for me. I tried everything, but nothing worked. Scolding, pleading, bribing, promises of gifts and other rewards all fell on deaf ears and my little man continued to drag his meals on for hours.
It wasn't just the time wasted with my slow eater. It was the stress and energy (unnecessarily) spent on getting through just one meal with my sanity still intact.
I knew this had to come to a stop and given that I had exhausted all other ways of trying to speed up my slow eater, last year I decided it was time to use some tough love, which I implemented in two ways.
Here's how I did it:
Setting a time limit
This was absolutely crucial to speeding up my little boy at mealtimes, and also important to the second aspect of my tough love method working (as you will read about in a bit).
First, I got myself a little clock with big, easy-to-identify numbers. While I wished I could tell my boy he only had five minutes to eat (imagine, all that free time!), I held back and started with a very reasonable time limit of one hour (this was when he was taking more than an hour to eat).
Of course, he couldn't read the time very well at that stage, so I had to explain to him that when the big hand came to twelve and the small hand came to X, then his time was up. I also explained that within this time, there would be no nagging him to hurry up, that it was all in his control.
But I did give him 'warnings' - "you have 30 minutes more" or "you have 10 minutes more".
Gradually, I reduced the time and eventually, brought it right down to between 30-40 minutes, which I thought was a reasonable amount of time for a child of his age to finish a meal. He was told that after his time was up, the food would be taken away.
But was only this enough to speed him up? No it wasn't. And so, tough love part two came into play.
You get the leftovers for your next meal
My son was told that if he didn't finish his meal within the allotted time, that not only would it be taken away, but it would be kept in the fridge, and heated up and given to him for his next meal.
Tough indeed. But not only did this tactic eliminate wasting a heap of food (because otherwise, my son would have happily eaten just half of what was on his plate in the given time with the rest to be thrown away), but it really motivated my son to eat faster, especially after he got said leftovers as his next meal a couple of times.
I did have a chat to him about why I needed to do this, relating it to the importance of not wasting food and also appreciating the effort another person takes to cook a meal.
And as you can see now, tough love part one and part two are co-dependent. Now, my boy is still not the speediest eater out there, but he understands that there are consequences for not finishing his food within a reasonable time.
He also understands that wasting food is no good and that time gained from not lingering at the table can be well spent doing other things he likes.
He is usually done within around 30-35 minutes which I am quite happy with.
He is also great at reading the time now!
Other than these two main tactics which I've explained above, try these tips too when dealing with your slow eater:
- Reduce the portion size. Often, mums get anxious about the quantity of food their child is eating (or not eating), when in reality, it's the quality of the food that should take priority. Seeing less food on their plate is also less overwhelming for a slow eater.
- When they are old enough, explain to them that when they take over an hour to eat (for example), they are wasting time that could be put to better use, such as playing or reading a storybook together.
- Minimise or eliminate snacks. This will give your child a better appetite to enjoy his main meals.
- Do give your child plenty of praise when he finishes a meal within the given time.
- Get rid of distractions such as the TV or electronic gadgets.
- Do try and make mealtimes fun. I know this might be tough especially if you've had years of dealing with a slow eater. But try out new recipes and be creative with food plating. If you can encourage your child through ways like this to look forward to his meal times, then he's automatically going to eat faster and with relish.
- Ask your child what he would like to eat, at least for one meal. Of course, requests for chicken cordon bleu each time may not be practical, but if the request if reasonable, by all means, do try and make it for him. He is bound to eat his favourite meal with no fuss and with plenty of speed.
Mums and dads, we love our kids with all our hearts - this is true. But it's also true that love can take on many forms: gentle and soft, fun and tough. Sometimes, a bit of tough love is needed to teach essential lessons to our kids... don't be afraid to love them this way, too.
Do you have a slow eater? How do you deal with him or her? Share your own tips with us in a comment below.