Nothing stirs up mealtime battles with fussy eaters like traveling. It doesn’t matter if your trip is only to a new restaurant, out of state, or half-way around the world. If what’s on your child’s plate isn’t what they are used to, you are going to hear about it!
So, this month Well Scripted is talking with The Food Nomade (nomade is the French spelling of nomad) Rana Chemali, about how to use mindful eating when traveling (or living abroad) with fussy eaters. Rana is a nutritionist, eating psychology coach, and expat herself, having lived in 5 different countries (Lebanon, the UAE, Korea, Turkey, and now Spain) with her 7 and 11 year old children. She has her own strategy for easing the transition between cultures and foods for her family:
“I make sure that at the beginning in a new country I offer the kids familiar foods. Simple real foods such as fresh fruits, staple carbs such as bread, rice or pasta, cut vegetables or grilled meats. When I see that they are settling into their new environment, I start to integrate new dishes and present them with new and more adventurous choices.”
Mindful eating is about awareness.
Turns out Rana is also a mind body practitioner, with a certificate in coaching mind body psychology. She has a unique way of applying concepts from mindful eating to mealtime negotiations with kids. Rana believes it is important for parents to teach their children to be more aware of the food they are eating. Awareness means helping children describe foods so that they “learn more about ingredients in terms of sensation: color, taste, smell… a beautiful presentation can sometimes be the element that triggers a child to try a new food.”
Mindful eating means parents might have to take a back seat.
Mindful eating with children is about shared responsibility. Rana feels it is important that parents set the framework of the family meal (place, time and what is being served) and not give in to children’s attempts to change this.
However, Rana encourages parents to give children their own responsibility regarding their body and whether to eat and how much. Parents will need to respect a child’s own interpretation of their body's sensations, appetite, and cravings. Power struggles can result from a clash between the parent's anxiety and fear that their child is not eating enough and that of the child feeling pressured into eating the unfamiliar and unwanted. Sharing of responsibilities regarding feeding between both parents and the child empowers the fussy eater. They will feel more in control of their own body without the need to reassert this power through more tantrums or struggles at mealtimes, reducing the number of power struggles.
Try to be non-judgmental, respectful and neutral (and yes, very, very patient)
Mindful eating is about respecting our bodies (and our children’s bodies) and being conscious of individual likes and dislikes in terms of food textures and tastes. Non-judgement can help parents “embrace the idea that change can happen and to be resilient in repeating the exposure of our children to new foods over time.” Maybe your goal should be that your child allows a new food to be put on their plate, even if they do not eat it, or that your child tastes a new food, even if they then spit it out on their plate. Challenge them to explain to you specifically why they do not like the new food by describing tastes, smells, textures. Repeated exposure to new or different foods helps kids become more comfortable with new foods or tastes. Research suggests it can take up to 20 encounters with a food before someone develops a preference. For children, learning to try new foods is often a journey that unfolds over many years.
Well Scripted wanted to know how Rana would approach the unique challenge of travelling with a fussy eater. Check out her tips below:
BEFORE YOU GO ✈
Introduce the idea of adventurous eating.
Talk with your children about how trying new foods can be a way of “discovering new cultures and ways of living and eating.” Try to teach your children to approach new foods like a lesson about where you are visiting. Reframe eating as a kind of adventure or exploration on a vacation, just like going to a museum or a new beach.
Review your family’s expectations for how meals will be the same or different while you are traveling (or have moved to a new country). Remember the emphasis is on the word “family” not “your” expectations. Having a discussion before the trip (or meal out) about what is important for each member and what they might be more flexible about can reduce anxiety and empower your kids.
Here are some guidelines to discuss:
Will family rules about sitting at the table for the entire meal change?
What about desserts or snacks in between meals? Decide on the number of ice cream or other “treats” per day or trip ahead of time, so that children are not begging at every corner for gelato or candy.
How will your family adapt to eating meals at different times of day than you might be used to?
Reassure your child that they will not be expected to try every new food they encounter on the trip.
Let your child know that they will have have more than one option to eat at each meal, so they feel safe and less pressured to try unfamiliar foods.
Learn about where you are going.
Do some research with your children ahead of time to learn what more about typical cuisine in the country or region you are traveling to. Enlist their help in planning what new foods they might be willing to try. Maybe even find some recipes and try cooking some of the foods from your destination country with your children, to help familiarize your children with the ingredients and preparation.
Schedule a family cooking class or food tour as part of your trip.
Allowing children to freely explore new textures and smells with their hands could increase their sense of familiarity with certain foods. It can increase a child’s sense of adventure and discovery, potentially making new foods more appealing and less when presented on a plate at a subsequent meal.
ON THE GROUND ONCE YOU HAVE ARRIVED ✈
Have multiple options so that children are empowered to choose what might look appetizing to them but not limited by only being offered the safe plate of pasta.
Depending on the age of your child, let them have a say in where you go to eat. With online menus and booking options, your child might like to make mealtime calls for the entire family. That way they can’t blame you if they don’t like anything on the menu!
Help them to feel safe.
Plan to have at least one “safe food” at every meal (usually rice, pasta or bread for most kids). Safe foods will help to reduce everyone’s anxiety. They can also act like a bridge between a familiar food to tasting a new food or flavor.
Many kids love to interact with their food and are more likely to eat unfamiliar foods when they are able to dip them in familiar sauces or dips such as ketchup, hummus, peanut butter or ranch dressing. Parents may need to plan ahead and pack some special sauces in their suitcase.
Schedule mini-meals instead of on-demand snacks.
Plan scheduled snacks in between the main meals.
Snacks should be regular and designed to be nutritious “mini-meals” rather than high-sugar or highly-processed treats or snacks.
Some parents choose to bring familiar packaged snacks in their suitcase that as additional “safety net.”
Offering nutritious foods in a planned and structured way can remove the focus from eating at main meals. These mini-meals can also help avoid power struggles and short-order cooking (or snacking) as a reaction to a main meal that went wrong.
Incentivize, but not with dessert.
Rana explains how offering a reward for trying something new can be helpful: “I don't recommend using desserts as incentives but rather another activity that will not make the child feel that what he/she is supposed to eat at the meal is less desirable than the reward food ( in that case dessert). A better incentive might be to offer a special activity that takes place away from the table, like an after dinner swim in the pool or a trip to the playground.”
Children with fussy eating habits often experience a sense of failure around eating and anticipation of future failures increase their anxiety around eating, trying new foods and mealtimes. Remaining neutral and non-judgemental about whether your child ate or not can help to diffuse any anxiety, sense of failure or anger when trying new foods. As Rana explains, “understanding this process from the perspective of mindful eating, helps parents to be patient, compassionate and hopeful with our children on their journey with food and learning to regulate their bodies and eating.”
If you are looking for some more information about mindful eating, here is a list of books recommended by an expert in the field. Or for more practical tips, check out “To and Fro Fam’s” list of 21 tested ways to help fussy eaters eat while traveling.
Have you successfully traveled with your picky eater or have you found the secrets to avoiding mealtime battles with fussy eater? Please share your tips with the Well Scripted community on our Facebook page or in the Comments Section.