10 research-based tips for making mealtime with kids a success

Happy family craving for a meal (Photo: iStock - nicoletaionescu)

Sometimes, mealtime with young children can feel more like a high-stakes negotiation than a nourishing and enjoyable family experience.

Jessica Clifford is an expert on how to navigate these challenges as a registered dietitian and CSU Extension nutrition specialist, as well as a mother and lover of food and cooking.

Drawing on strategies grounded in research, Clifford recently hosted a webinar where she explained what to do when you’re dealing with a picky eater, struggling to establish healthy eating habits or simply looking for ways to make mealtime less stressful.

Parents and caregivers are constantly being told about what they should and shouldn’t feed their kids. Yet, the importance of how to feed children often goes unaddressed. Clifford’s insights can help parents dealing with difficult eaters turn the tables in their favor.

Understanding the division of responsibility

Central to creating a positive mealtime environment is understanding the division of responsibility in feeding, a concept developed by Ellyn Satter. This approach delineates the roles of caregivers and children: caregivers decide what, when and where food is offered, while children choose whether and how much to eat. This framework encourages children to listen to their hunger and fullness cues and can go a long way in making mealtime a positive shared experience.

10 tips for raising healthy and happy eaters

These tips are most applicable to pre-school and elementary-aged children, but can apply to older kids as well, although the scenarios may be somewhat different.

Remain neutral about foods

Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” present them as choices. There are some foods our bodies need and others we may enjoy but don’t need. This helps children develop a balanced perspective on eating without associating guilt with certain foods.

Don’t restrict foods

Teaching moderation rather than outright restriction can prevent the development of overeating behaviors later on. This doesn’t mean kids should get free rein over the candy jar, but allowing treats is okay and can be part of developing healthy eating patterns.

Be a good role model

Your eating habits have a profound impact on your children. Eating a variety of foods and demonstrating a positive relationship with food encourages them to do the same. Eating the same foods in the same place and at the same time when possible can help.

Offer foods multiple times

Repeated exposure in different forms and settings can gradually increase acceptance of new foods. It can take 15 to 20 exposures for a child to accept a new food and even more before they begin to actually enjoy it.

Allow self feeding

Encouraging children to feed themselves fosters independence and helps them pay attention to their internal hunger and fullness signals. When children take the lead in feeding themselves, they engage more actively with their meals. It is the job of parents and caregivers to offer the nourishment, and it is the child’s job to decide what to eat.

Never force a food

Forcing children to eat certain foods can lead to negative associations, additional resistance and an unhealthy relationship with food. Offer choices and respect their decisions. If a child refuses a food simply say, “Okay,” and move on. There’s no reason to argue with your child and no reason to get stressed out.

Eat together

Eat together as a family or as a unit as much as possible and avoid distractions while eating. This encourages mindful eating and lets us pay better attention to our innate hunger and fullness cues.

Establish routines

Consistent meal and snack times provide structure and help children regulate their appetite.

Avoid using food as emotional comfort

Teaching children to seek comfort outside of food prevents the development of emotional eating habits. If a child is having a tantrum, try to avoid giving food to satisfy them. As they get older, avoid phrases like, “If you eat your vegetables, you can have dessert.” This sort of comment assumes that vegetables can’t be enjoyed without dessert and implies that dessert is a reward for eating vegetables.

Involve children in preparing and cooking food

Participation in meal preparation increases children’s interest in food and their willingness to try what they’ve helped make. Having a say in what foods might be served for a meal or a snack gives children buy-in. For example, you may ask, “Which of these vegetables should we have for dinner tomorrow?” and give them two or three different options to choose from. This increases their likelihood of trying new foods.

Things to keep in mind

Transforming mealtime from a source of stress to a nurturing family experience is a journey that requires patience, understanding and consistency. By applying the principles and strategies shared by Clifford, parents and caregivers can establish healthy eating habits in children and make mealtime a joyful and enriching part of family life. Remember, every meal is an opportunity to foster a positive relationship with food and create lasting memories together.

PHOTO: Happy family craving for a meal (iStock – nicoletaionescu)

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