Family life – vibrant, chaotic, hectic, busy… whatever adjective you would choose to describe day to day living with your little ones, I am guessing calm isn’t one of them. At least, it certainly isn’t at my house! My three girls are lively and loud – and I wouldn’t have them any other way. My husband and I are super busy working parents, balancing work commitments, keeping the house running and children’s activities with the odd bit of quality family time and fun stuff squeezed in. Calm, it is not. And mealtimes are no exception.
It often seems that I’m running around preparing food, corralling unwilling helpers, (while clearing up, answering the phone and feeding the cat simultaneously), setting the table, then boom: ‘Dinner’s ready!!!!’ and I shout until everyone is sitting down. Sound familiar?
Let’s look at this picture from the kids’ perspective. One minute they are busy doing their thing, and the next minute they are expected to be sitting at the table in the right frame of mind to eat. They’ve been at school all day, in a really stimulating environment and are full to the brim with the sights, sounds and experiences that made up their day.
Maybe they’ve been letting off steam with some boisterous play – they are full of excitement and adrenaline. Or perhaps they have been watching TV; something that research shows is extremely stimulating for young children. However their day has gone, the chances are that by the time your kids are sitting down for their evening meal, they are hyped up or in a post-screen slump.
The sensory cup
Fussy eating specialist Simone Emery (of Play with Food Australia) has a great way of describing children after a busy day, or a busy morning at school or day care. She uses the analogy of the ‘sensory cup’ and talks about children only having the capacity for a certain amount of stimulation. In order to get into the right frame of mind to eat, children need to empty their sensory cup.
For children who struggle with sensory processing, as many picky eaters do, this is especially true. These children will find it very hard to tolerate the sensory stimulation that food provides if their sensory cup has not been emptied.
Food stimulates the senses in many ways: How it looks, how it smells, the texture, the taste, the temperature… how it feels on the fingers, the face, the lips and tongue. To give your child their best shot at coping with all of this, you need to put in some work before the meal.
The golden twenty minutes
The golden twenty minutes is special time dedicated to helping your child get into the right frame of mind for eating. It involves (you’ve guessed it) twenty minutes of quality time with you, directly before a meal.
Pick an activity that you know your child enjoys and that you know calms them down. Perhaps reading them a story, drawing together or playing a quiet game. Twenty minutes may sound like a long time, but in my experience it takes that long to really help your child wind down and give them as sense that they have had some quality one-on-one time with you.
Maybe your child is more withdrawn than boisterous – the golden twenty minutes will help draw them out, ready to engage with the family meal.
Mission impossible ?
When I first introduce clients to the concept of the golden twenty minutes, they look a little bit scared and ask me how on earth that fits with getting a meal on the table and looking after younger siblings. Crying babies and burning food do not add to a calm and relaxed ambiance…
Yes - it’s hard. Especially when there are other children to factor in. But with really good preparation, it’s doable. And if it’s only doable a couple of days out of seven, that’s still valuable. We’re not aiming for perfection, just the best that you can manage in the context of your specific situation. A really important part of good preparation is thinking of food that you can do in advance. Maybe in the slow cooker or crock-pot. Maybe salads that you can keep refrigerated until you need them.
“What you will get from the golden twenty minutes far outweighs the hassle of making it happen”
The benefits of the golden twenty minutes
- Your child will have had loads of positive attention from you immediately before the meal, making it much less likely that will use their eating as a means to getting attention during the meal.
- You will have enabled your child to empty their sensory cup, leaving them better placed to manage the sensory stimulation that they will experience during the meal
- You will have contributed to a really positive pre-meal routine – this helps picky eaters enormously as routine gives them a sense of control (they know what to expect) and the positive associations of the pre-meal activity with you will spill over into positive associations with meals
Experiment with the golden twenty minutes in your home - try it for a week, for as many days as you can manage and see for yourself what impact it has on your child's eating.