Feeding with Freedom; a series. Part 1: Family Dinner

Happy New Year to you all!  Wishing everyone lots of happiness and health in the new year.  As for me, I am focusing in more this year on my work of helping parents feed their kids well, which prompted me to start this series.  I hope it is helpful to some of you.

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Feeding children is a huge part of being a parent.  It happens day in and day out, several times a day, and those kids just keep getting hungry!

Sometimes feeding kids can seem like a thankless job, especially with kids who are less than willing to eat what you put on the table.  Most people know what they SHOULD be feeding their kids, but the problem is how to actually get fruits, vegetables, grains, and other whole foods into them. There just isn’t a lot of advice out there on the how part of feeding.  Things can get especially difficult around the age of 3, when children begin to assert their independence, and say NO to many of the foods they ate with gusto just a few months previous.  Many parents throw up their hands and just feed them what they know they will eat.  We figure they will get through this ‘phase’, and many kids will, some quicker than others. But there are several things we can do along the way to help ease our children into eating (and liking!) a variety of whole foods without having to bribe, battle or beg.

This series will hopefully offer a few key suggestions to help turn the job of feeding your kids into something more enjoyable for everyone involved.  Food is so much more than nourishment, and battling, bribing and coercing children to eat certain foods creates an air of tension and can set kids up with a negative attitude toward food and eating for life.  I think one of the most important things we can do for our children is to provide them with a love of and appreciation for delicious, whole food. Like any other skill that we teach our children, learning to eat in a balanced way takes time and patience.

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Today we start with a bit about the benefits of family dinner.

I know some of you are saying, “We could not have family dinner in my house, ” for various reasons.  The reality is that our modern world is such that many parents do not arrive home until it is much too late for little ones to eat, or that kids have evening activities to attend, or that parents get home without enough time to prepare a meal for the family.  Whatever the reason, that is OK.  Accept the reality of where your family is, and begin to think about a different type of “family dinner”. Perhaps yours is “family breakfast”, or “family lunch” on the weekends, or even just having dinner together 1 or 2 nights a week.  Any and all of these things “count” and will provide many of the benefits that families reap from eating together.  Recent studies show that kids who share family dinners 3 or more times per week:

  • Are more likely to eat healthy foods
  • Do better in school
  • Are more emotionally stable
  • Have better relationships with their parents
  • Are at lower risk for obesity, substance abuse, and disordered eating.

Besides these quite amazing benefits, family dinners provide no-pressure opportunities to introduce kids to new foods.  And when I say “family dinner” I mean one dinner cooked for everyone, served family style, with the whole family (or even just those who are available) sitting down together to eat. By serving new food in a family style way (placing it on the table in a central dish) but not on a child’s plate, kids are exposed to new foods and will progress to exploring, tasting, and possibly even liking the new food without pressure to try it.  This will likely not happen the first time a new food is served, or maybe even the 5th or the 15th, but this is a great way to introduce the food without creating tension at mealtime.

It is important for successful family meals to keep a positive environment at the table. Go around the table and talk about your day, or just about anything except what everyone is or isn’t eating.  Of course it’s great to talk about the foods offered and help your kids learn about them if they are interested, and it is also important for them to see you enjoying the food. But that is where the influence should stop, allowing kids natural curiosity to take over when they are ready.  Watching you also teaches kids about how to behave at mealtime as well as learning good table manners by example.

You may be wondering how it is possible that your picky kid will eat anything you have put out on the table for everyone to eat unless mac and cheese or chicken nuggets are there nightly.  It is perfectly OK to serve these foods occasionally as a component of the meal, but they should not be there every night.  It is important to make sure there is SOMETHING that each family member will eat (for example bread and butter or fruit), but this is the best way to push children along to try new things without pressure, as it is likely they will get bored eating the bread and butter every night and decide to try some new things.

Of course this new style of feeding is likely to cause some meltdowns and strong demands for the usual but it is important to stick to your guns.  When children realize that this is what there is for dinner tonight and no amount of whining will get them another meal, most will give in after a few days and at least begin to eat some parts of the meal.  It is also important to let go of the thinking that kids need to eat a “balanced” meal every night.  This style of eating, especially at first, will allow for your child to eat only bread and butter, or noodles, or fruit for dinner.  It is important not to worry about this and to look at a child’s whole day or their eating over a few days.  Chances are that if you are offering several components at each meal (for example bread, cheese, meat, and vegetables, more on this in a later post), your child’s eating will balance out over the day or few days and they will get all the nutrients they need.

That said, there is a difference between a picky eater and a problem feeder.  If your child seems to be on the extreme picky side, for example rejecting whole groups of foods, or having extreme physical aversions to certain foods even being near them, there may be other issues involved.  If the changes you’ve made and stuck to over time don’t seem to be making any difference (and remember this type of change takes lots of time, more than you would think), then I encourage you to seek the help of a feeding therapist or registered dietitian.  Most children can learn to like at least some new foods, but some just need a little extra help.

I hope that this information will be helpful to you, and I would love to hear your questions and experiences you have with your family around feeding.  Stay tuned for part 2 of this series next week!

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3 responses

  1. When we started serving meals family style and adopted a no pressure approach, almost immediately the tone at the table changed for the better. For my selective eater, it was a huge relief for him to have the freedom to explore food at his own pace. In the past two years, he has, very slowly, made tremendous gains, but we still have a long way to go. We also have many years ahead of us to build a healthy relationship with food and many many meals to enjoy together between now and then! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Feeding with Freedom; A Series. Part 2: Making Family Dinner Work | Brilliant Bites

  3. Pingback: Feeding With Freedom; a Series. Part 3: Avoiding Pressure | Brilliant Bites

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