Written by Neil Welsh | Progressive Family Food
8 tips to enjoy stress free family meal times… Starting tonight!
One of the greatest skills a parent can master is knowing which battles to pick. In general, there are no hard and fast rules for deciding when to engage in the battle of wills with our off spring and I am sure we have all found ourselves knee deep in a stand-off we would never have ordinarily chosen.
Fortunately, and somewhat contrary to popular belief, feeding our kids is a relatively simple job if we can follow some straightforward principles. The battles our parents had with us over eating our vegetables and cleaning our plates are frowned upon by today’s experts. The underlying theme is that pressure does not work. The more you apply pressure, the less they eat. This is good news for parents as, let’s be honest, pressuring and coercing our kids to eat is hard work and stressful… and parenting is difficult enough without additional unnecessary stress at the dinner table every night!
We just need a bit of a rethink. A slight adjustment in attitude and fortunately, in most cases it is us, the parents, who need to change. That change can begin tonight. So what are the top tips that we as parents can use to build healthy relationships with food for even the fussiest of eaters? Let’s start with pressure doesn’t work…
1. Don’t use pressure to feed. “Eat your vegetables”, “finish everything on your plate” and “no dessert if you don’t eat your dinner” should all be replaced with “You don’t have to eat it”. It sounds counterintuitive but this phrase is the first step in building a positive relationship with food whilst making most meal time stress and anxiety disappear. In reality, most meal time battles are nothing to do with the food, it is simply a case of kids asserting power in a rare area that they actually have control. Kids love asserting this power resulting in parental attention in the form of bribing, begging, cajoling and pleading. If we don’t enter into this game then kids can self-regulate and build confidence in their eating and develop at their own pace, they won’t starve!
2. Have a feeding routine based around three meals and two snacks. Giving up our power and telling our kids that they don’t have to eat what they don’t want is difficult and even scary for most parents. There is an overwhelming sense of duty to feed our kids at every meal. We take on roles of enforcer (parents) and resistors (kids) and we try to negotiate the consumption of an arbitrary amount of food. It is all too easy to become blinkered and focus on that one meal, rather that what our kids are eating throughout the day or even a couple of days. Experts suggest feeding three meals and two snacks per day (not within an hour of a meal and make snacks small, they are not meal substitutes). Parents decide the what , where and when of feeding and kids then decide how much and whether. If we structure our meals then we can be confident that even if only a small amount of a meal is eaten then our kids will have eaten sufficient amounts throughout the day.
3. Serve appropriate meal sizes. Have you ever not felt very hungry and then sat down and someone has served you a huge plate of food? It is not a nice experience and kids can feel exactly the same. Big platefuls of food can be intimidating and off putting for kids. The other advantage of kid sized portions is that it reduces waste if your child decides that they do not want to eat much of their dinner… which is fine.
4. Eat together whenever you can. In this busy day and age it is becoming more and more difficult to eat as a family but research suggests that there are a host of benefits from eating together as a family. Evidence suggests that kids develop social skills, learn eating habits (good and bad!) and communal eating has even be shown to have positive links with performance at school and avoidance of addiction. Eating should be a social and enjoyable experience. Families should eat the same (less cooking) and meal times should be distraction free (no screens).
5. Don’t hide the veg! I think we have all seen recipes for spaghetti bolognaise with “hidden” veg. Experts advise against this as it can create mistrust at the dinner table. No one likes being lied to… and certainly not about what we are eating. Trust is an important element of a peaceful dinner table and we should be as honest as possible with our kids. We should also be careful saying things like “eat that and you will grow big and strong…. Kids don’t see these results which can again lead to doubt about what they are being told.
6. Don’t give a running commentary. Kids have many of the same sensitivities and emotions that adults have when it comes to meal times. We would not like it if someone else at the table gave a running commentary of what and how we were eating. “Try a potato, they are lovely”, “you like those peas, don’t you?”, “Eat some carrots, they are really good for you!”. Forget it all. Give your child their food and leave them to it. It is important for kids to understand the nutritional benefits of the food they eat but these lessons should be learnt away from the table. At the table, a kids only concern is taste and satisfaction, they dont care about the beta glucan in barley reducing cholesterol.
7. Be patient and manage our expectations. The good news about helping our kids to develop positive relationships with food is that we have ages to get this sorted! Taking the stress away from meal times is a huge step and forms a solid platform for introducing new foods. There is no rush, but try to stay on track and have the whole family on the same page. We also need to manage our expectations; if our kids finished every meal by complimenting us on how delicious dinner was then meal times would be a breeze… kids aren’t necessarily like that and we need to prepare ourselves for noses being turned up at our efforts and do our best not to take it personally!
8. Be prepared! Like any good boy scout or girl guide, parents need to be prepared. In the kitchen planning and lists are the key to tranquillity! Have a well stocked supply cupboard and keep it well stocked. Plan your week’s meals and have a list of meal and snacks that you know work. If you need a list of great snacks for you kids then this is a great resource: http://dadvworld.com/snacks-kids-nut-allergy/
Writer Profile | Neil Welsh helps parents of fussy eaters. His blog, www.progressivefamilyfood.com, aims to provide strategies to unlock the secrets of getting even the fussiest of kids to enjoy healthy food, try new things at the dinner table and build a positive relationship with food in a stress free environment.