Family mealtimes (where at least one adult eats with the children) is one the most powerful things you can do to help your children become adventurous and colourful eaters (AKA less fussy!!). Family mealtimes not only helps kids nutritionally but also socially and even academically!
By allowing children as young as two years of age to serve themselves and choose what they put on their plates, you empower them to have trust in their own bodies (fullness and hunger and what they feel like eating). By giving them this newfound sense of control over if/whether and how much they eat, family meals can be a winning set-up for feeding kids, including your pickiest of eaters.
But how do you get children to the table and to stop wriggling and complaining at the table? Well try these three steps for more peaceful dinner times!
- Create a before the table routine (transition period)
- Manage your own exceptions at the table
- Have a few table ‘rules’
1. Create a before table routine (transition period)
- for older children or ones who happily come to the table a 10, 5 and then 2 minute warning might be enough (I know this works for my eldest who is often busy with homework)
- for younger children, have them engaged in getting the meal ready but do not seat them at the table in advance. If your child struggles to sit at the table through a meal, it is better to engage them in other ways like practicing life skills such as carrying items to the table, placing napkins at each spot, or adding spoons for a family style meal while you get the meal on the table. The five minutes spent engaging them in setting out the food may be the only five minutes they will stay seated for a meal, so use that time wisely and reserve it for once food has already been served.
- For kids who may be more apprehensive to new foods (i.e. “picky”), parents also may opt to engage their children in sensory play before a meal. While “working up an appetite” is always good with getting kids hungry for a meal, waking up their senses prior to sitting them down to eat a meal may also help improve if/whether and how much they eat. Having simple sensory items like a bin of rice, dry beans, cornmeal, or just water with a few scoops, funnels, or toys can further get them ready for a meal.
- Where possible have a few hours break from eating before sitting at the table. Have afternoon tea a couple of hours before dinner and avoid grazing in between. We want kids to come to the table, hungry (but not starving or overly hangry).
2. Manage your expectations
- Be clear about expectations. Teach children that meals are not only about eating but also about togetherness. Tell them you expect them to join their siblings and/or family for meals whether they choose to eat or not. Then, be sure they are also well aware of the expectations after meals. If they get up from the table, the meal is over. If they get hungry, they will need to wait until the next planned meal or snack. Let them know when will this be (will it be later that evening or breakfast?). This helps them to learn the cause and effect of listening to actual cues of hunger and fullness, and not relying only on snacks or grazing later as they prematurely get up from the table. Then stick to these, calmly and yet confidently at meal times.
- Be realistic about how long they should stay seated. In my experience, most kids can handle 2-5 minutes seated at the table per year of life. If it is a meal they’re not into, it’s usually on the lower end and vice versa with a meal they are enjoying, they will usually stay a bit longer. So for a two year old, expect 5-10 minutes as an age appropriate amount of time they can sit at the table.
- Manage your own expectations. If you have planned a family meal that you know includes at least 1-2 items your child usually likes, then be at peace with whatever amount of food they choose to eat (if any). Don’t expect your child will consistently eat those foods and please don’t pressure them to try a bit of everything offered. Instead, rest assured that you have done your job by the time the meal is served. You serve the meal and create a pleasant mealtime atmosphere. It is up to your child to choose what, if and how much to eat.
3. Have a few table ‘rules’
- You don’t have to eat but you come to the table and sit with us (as mentioned above in be clear about your expectations)
We don’t use the words, “I don’t like it.” It is completely normal and age-appropriate for children to not prefer every food we put in front of them. Families need to change their language though when it comes to avoiding such foods. Instead of allowing your child to use “I don’t like it” for any item they choose not to eat, train your family to change their language to “I am still learning it.” With this, you open up a whole host of opportunities to help you child learn to like this new or non-preferred food.
- Turn the screen off
Try and make family mealtimes a time to enjoy each other’s company. Turn off TV and pop mobile phones away. Enjoy each other’s company. Find out what fun things happened that day. Did something exciting or funny happen? Did they help anyone today? Did anything sad happen?
- This is a pressure free zone
Know when to say nothing. If you want to have a happy meal time, know when you should or shouldn’t say something. If you find yourself tempted to pressure or prompt your child to eat something or more, stop yourself. It is better to say nothing that to speak up in a way that creates unintentional but perceived pressure on your child to eat a certain way.
- Try serving meals family style
Rather than pre-serve meals on plates. Pop the meal in the middle of the table and let the kids serve themselves. Give them the tongs, they will love it! This is great for them taking responsibility in their own eating but also good for fine motor skills.
Where possible deconstructing the meals, helps too. Think, un-tossed salads with dressing on the side to make meals more appealing for kids.
- Eat with your children
Now this doesn’t have to be the whole family but try and have one adult eating with the kids. Now I know this can be hard for some families at dinner time with late working hours (how about try having a half dinner with the kids and then the other half later?) Breakfast or weekends can be great times to try and get the whole family at the table.
So try and follow these three steps for creating happier, family mealtimes. Let us know what worked for you in the comments below.
Written as a collaboration between family dietitian Kate Wengier (Foost Founder) and USA Dietitian Ashley Smith