By Ann McConkey RD
As a parent, I know that some days mealtimes with my kids are not as calm as I would hope for. These days, we may all be facing extra challenges in feeding our families. Here are some ideas for more pleasant mealtimes and to help kids develop a positive relationship with food. You may realize that you’re already doing some of these things. You may see things that you might want to change. I encourage you to treat yourself with kindness and compassion and know that you’re doing the best you can.
Share food together as a family.
This can be the whole family or one adult and child sitting together at a table. A meal could be one you’ve spent some time putting together or it might be heating up a frozen pizza, going out for a burger, or having sandwiches. Spending mealtimes with your children is most important, regardless of what you’re eating. Research shows that children who eat with their family do better nutritionally, socially, emotionally, and academically and are less likely to develop an eating disorder.
Have regular meals and snacks.
This is comforting and reassuring for kids and adults alike. Our bodies and minds can count on being fed regularly and can focus on other things the rest of the time. If kids are reluctant to come to a meal because they aren’t hungry, say, “Come sit with us, you don’t need to eat.” This takes the pressure off and they may eat once they are sitting. Save eating for meals and snacks so kids are hungry at those times. If children ask for things in between, you can remind them of when the next eating time is.
Follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility.
The parent provides – they decide the where, what, and when of eating. From the food offered, kids decide what, how much, and if, they are going to eat. She advocates staying in your own lane: do your job of providing regular meals and snacks and let your child do their job of learning to eat a variety of foods. At each meal, include one familiar food that your child likes, such as bread or pasta. If that is all they eat at a given meal, don’t stress. Children may need to be exposed to a food 5 – 20 times before they feel comfortable eating it. In time they will learn to like more foods.
Strive to have pleasant mealtimes.
Eating together is a time to connect, talk, and enjoy being with each other. Try to have meals away from the TV and other screens. Have conversations about topics other than food. Knowing a food is ‘healthy’ is unlikely to make your child eat it. In fact, it may do the opposite. When meals are a safe, comfortable experience, it allows your child to try new foods when they feel ready.
Kids do better when they are allowed to try foods at their own pace. If kids see you eating and enjoying all types of food, they will eventually want to try them. Pressuring them is not a helpful strategy. It can make mealtime unpleasant and rarely achieves the result you are hoping for. Pressure can be as subtle as praising a child for trying a new food, or more direct – such as telling them they need to eat what’s on their plate. Try not to comment on what, or how much, kids are eating. The emphasis should be on sharing a meal, not on getting your child to eat.
All foods fit.
Kids who aren’t allowed certain foods or who hear food being labelled as ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ will end up feeling badly or ashamed if they like those things. They may start to sneak off-limits foods. The way to help them develop a calm relationship with food is to include foods such as desserts, chips, and candy as part of some meals and snacks – for example: having fries with hot dogs, dessert with supper, candy with an afternoon snack, or chips while watching a movie on Saturday night. This helps kids relax because they don’t need to worry about not having those foods. They just become another food that the family eats. Being able to eat those foods with your child is a wonderful opportunity for them to see how all types of foods can be an enjoyable part of our lives.
Consider your long-term goal.
“Our long-term goals should include bringing up a child who is both confident and competent when it comes to food and eating.” says Crystal Karges, Registered Dietitian. She continues, “If we can stay in our lane, we can create a safe and nurturing environment from which our children can grow into their healthiest selves.”
I hope that following these tips helps you have calmer, more pleasant mealtimes with your kids and helps bring peace to the table.
Ann McConkey is a registered dietitian and parent to three daughters and two
step-sons. She uses a non-diet, weight neutral, body-acceptance approach in
her work with people who experience binge eating, chronic dieting, and
eating disorders. She believes that people come in a wide variety of shapes
and sizes and hopes that we can be comfortable eating all foods from
chickpeas to chocolate.
For more insights and information, you may want to check out these dietitian blogs: