Evenings for parents can be a very busy and chaotic time. Parents are often in a hurry to help children complete homework, prepare for the morning, get kids to sports and other activities, and tidy up for the day.
It can often make it feel impossible to get everyone sitting down together to eat a home-cooked meal, and to actually prepare the meal can feel insurmountable. After all the work to get dinner on the table, and everyone eating together it can be disheartening to then have children refuse to eat.
Young children often go through food “jags” where they only like particular foods or refuse a certain type of food, for example, they won’t eat anything red. These phases generally tend to be short-lived and are a very typical stage of development.
Food “jags” and picky eaters can cause stress for parents. The important thing for parents to remember is to provide a variety of healthy options at each meal and to provide nutrient-packed snacks in between meals. Parents can decide what is served, but children should make the decision of how much to eat. Avoid the “clean your plate” mentality, as children know when they are full. It is important to allow children many exposures to food; often children will not try a food until they have been exposed to it 10 times.
One thing that can really help children develop a taste for a wide variety of foods is having a family meal time. When children are exposed to a different options and observe others eating they are more likely to try new foods. Meal time can allow parents an opportunity to visit with their child about their day and about where different produce and food comes from.
Here are some tips for meal time:
- Meal time should be a pleasant social time that includes conversation
- Some meal time conversation should be about food that is served
- Meal time allows children to learn important self-help skills such as pouring, serving, cutting
- Serve foods with a variety of textures, temperatures, colors, shapes and flavors
- Serve new and unusual foods
- Include at least one well-liked food at each meal
- Avoid negative comments on what, if or how much a child eats
- Do not use rewards or punishment for eating or not eating
- Make meal time a technology-free time
If your family currently struggles to find time to eat together start small. Aim for once a week and then increase how often you sit together and eat. Remember it doesn’t have to be dinner to be beneficial, if eating breakfast or lunches together works better for your family these are also great options.
Another way to help involve children in meal time is to have them assist with cooking the meal. Children are more likely to eat if they have helped prepare the meal. This can also be a good bonding experience for parents and children. Just make sure to supervise children in the kitchen carefully as injuries can happen quickly.
Family meal time can be a great way for parents to teach children table manners and to talk about their day. There are many benefits to eating together and these can last well past the early years of childhood. Older children who sit down and eat with their families regularly are less likely to engage in risky behaviors and may be more motivated in school.
Even though our busy schedules can make it difficult to carve out time to sit and eat as a family, the memories made together while eating and sharing food and conversations can have a lasting impact.
By Patricia Bates, Family Life Educator, Women’s and Children’s Community Outreach Education, Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center