One of the most important things we parents can do for our children is to help create a positive relationship with food. With the increasing prevalence of childhood chronic disease, lack of institutional education about healthful eating, and misguided commercial messaging about nutrition, our children are at risk of developing lifelong physical, emotional and cognitive issues related to food. We parents must demonstrate healthful eating behaviors, establish positive routines and prioritize family mealtimes.
The majority of informed parents focus on our children’s nutrition, then we cater to their pickiness. One result is a power struggle about food, which kids typically win.
We may prepare a rainbow of nutritious foods, yet cave to the “yuck” face over kale. So we offer “kid-friendly” foods with at least one useful nutrient (I mean, doesn’t chocolate milk contain calcium?).
Every family deals with these issues. Kids are picky. Parents are busy. We have to eat, frequently. Nourishing kids is laborious, every day, every meal. It’s exhausting.
But what are we teaching?
What would happen if we parents approach mealtimes as opportunities to teach? What if we focus on raising healthy eaters, rather than on calibrating the nutrient consumption during each meal?
Instead of pressuring our kids to eat two more bites of Brussels sprouts, bribing with dessert, or even creating multiple entrees for multiple preferences, examine the goal of teaching good feeding habits. If the desire is for kids to eat healthy food, is this goal being accomplished?
When we relax about what our children are eating – or not eating – yet continue to serve healthy and varied options, eventually kids will eat a wider range of food. Inevitably, kids will expand their palettes, listen to their bodies’ needs, and ingest more nutrients.
According to sociologist Dina Rose (It’s Not About the Broccoli, 2014), I am a member of the Food Police. Relaxing about food is not my forte. Thankfully, I’m learning that a few fundamentals will help every parent lay a happy table.
First, we must demonstrate what healthy eating behaviors look like. We cannot teach our children to eat dark leafy greens, if we don’t eat dark leafy greens. Learn to love and cook whole foods.
Second, eating environment sets the tone for mealtime. Identify what creates obstacles at mealtimes. Work to overcome these challenges to create calm and joy while eating. Remove toys and screens. Stop eating in the car. Eliminate chips from the pantry. Plan ahead and carve out time to prep food for the week.
Predictability is key. Set meal and snack times as the only times to eat. When kids munch between meals, will they be hungry for their dinner? Children thrive with routine, so when they can expect to eat certain meals on certain days in certain settings, they are more amenable eaters. While pre-planned meals hinder creativity for most of the week, they save time, money and effort!
Rituals both prompt mealtime atmosphere and create expectations. At our house, pre-meal procedures are probably the most important – bringing everyone to the table without struggle increases our chances of enjoying our meal together. Pre-meal rituals could be simply a five-minute notice or having kids set the table. A mid-meal ritual may be talking about (positive!) events of the day. Post-meal ritual may be remaining at the table until everyone has finished eating.
We can demonstrate that ever-changing eating preferences are acceptable. Practice ways to ensure mealtimes are special, and healthy food is tasty. By first teaching our children how to interact with food, eventually healthier eating habits ensue.
Binns, D. (2016). Picky Eaters Protocol. Retrieved from http://daniellebinns.com/tag/picky-eater-protocol/
Rose, D. (2014). It’s not about the broccoli. Penguin Group (USA) LLC; New York, NY
Satter, E. (n.d.). Feed your child with love and good sense. Ellyn Satter Institute. Retrieved from https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/