Top 5 Rules for Mealtimes
By Jennifer Seawell, MD, FAAP
Everyone likes the idea of sitting down to a family meal with all members eating the same nutritious meal. Unfortunately for many families, mealtimes can be a time of tears and power-struggles. There are some simple rules you can start now that will help move your mealtimes towards a time of family connection and children who eat a good variety of foods.
Prepare 1 meal for ALL family members
Many parents, desperate to ensure that their children eat SOMETHING, fall into the trap of becoming a short-order chef. Parents prepare one meal for themselves, and another, sometimes 2 or 3, for their children. But there are major downfalls to this approach. Most of the time, the foods our children want to eat are not nutritious. Chicken nuggets and pizza rolls may be quick, easy, and reliable sources of calories, but they are not healthy and do not have the nutrients needed for growth.
Remember that our job as parents is to provide our children with nutritious food to grow their brains and bodies. The choice to eat is theirs alone.
No Extras or Desserts if you don’t eat your meal
My firstborn child was a naturally good eater. We put stuff on her plate, she ate it. Assuming that we had the feeding business down, we expected the same compliance from our youngest. However, our children often have minds of their owns. Number 2 was petite and not as hungry as her big sister. Some days, it would seem that she ate less than a bird. So when she said she was hungry, we would feed her. It took a while for me to catch on that she was consistently asking for fruit right before dinner and then complaining that she wasn’t hungry once the meat and veggies came out.
Once I figured this one out, we had to tolerate crying and tears before dinner while she insisted that we were starving her. Not overly surprising, dinner consumption improved. However, her tricks were not quite over. Many days she would claim to be full after a few bites, only to be ravenously hungry an hour after kitchen cleanup was done.
And then there was the time she tried explaining to me that her stomach had several different sections in it. And that the “meat and vegetable section” was already completely full, so that’s why she wasn’t hungry for her meal. But the “dessert section” still had lots of room in it. So she could definitely fit a cookie or some fruit in that part. All with a very serious face. Clearly, we had a rationalization expert on our hands.
Luckily, we’d figured out the rule by this particular excuse. And now the rule stands. Here is your food. Eat it if you are hungry. Do not eat it if you are not. I am happy to save it for you when you are ravenously hungry in 20 minutes. Be calm and matter of fact. Some days WILL be a challenge. But it will get easier.
You must try everything on your plate
When you are starting to guide your children to a well-balanced palate, the rules should be very simple. Put only a little bit of each food option on their plate with the rule that you must try everything. As they age out of the toddler years and learn that a bite of peas in unlikely to kill them, you can advance the rule to they must eat 3 spoons of each item. By the time your kiddo is into double digits, they should be eating a normal serving of each food offering. This is not to say they will like everything we fix. But we shouldn’t avoid fixing one of our favorites because they say they don’t like it.
Parents have to eat well too
Obviously, we cannot expect our youngsters to eat plenty of fruits or veggies if we parents refuse to eat ours. “Monkey see, monkey do” is one of the prime ways our children learn. Don’t like broccoli? Try fixing it a new way. It’s totally OK to let them know that broccoli isn’t your favorite but that it’s good for you so you’re trying to find a way to cook it that you like. Better yet, enlist their help in finding new recipes to try that they think you might like.
Respect differences in foods from different cultures
Even if you tend to stick to foods that you are used to, make sure to talk about and respect differences in foods from different cultures. Do not refer to other cultures’ foods as disgusting or gross. It can take 10-12 times to try a new food before you decide you actually like it. And it will be difficult to raise an “adventurous” eater if you don’t step outside your comfort zone every now and then.
So try a restaurant from a different culture every once in a while. Try making new foods from different countries and celebrate as a family. Have an “Italian night” or a “Sushi night.” Talk about the culture and learn a couple new words. For these special nights, make an appropriate dessert to go along. Celebrate everyone’s differences and how food can bring people together in ALL cultures!
For help in adding fiber to your child’s diet, check out Easy Ways to Add Fiber to Your Child’s Diet.
The Pediatric Ninja
This article is the professional opinion of its author and is not intended to take the place of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from your personal physician.