Food is something that should be enjoyed, right? However, sometimes family meals feel more like a battle than a picnic. Elise Compston, RD, LD, dietary educator and consultant at Hometown Health, provides tips for expanding your child’s diet and making family meals more pleasant.
As a parent, there are so many considerations that go into family meals: from meal planning, to grocery shopping, to cooking and finally convincing your family to sit down and eat the meal you’ve prepared. It can be frustrating when your child doesn’t want to try the food you worked so hard to serve. If you struggle with family meals, you’re definitely not alone.
Help! My Child is a Picky Eater
Kids are still developing their taste preferences, so it’s normal for toddlers through teens to be picky eaters. But we know that it can sting when your kids refuse to eat the food that you’ve prepared. You may even worry that they’re not getting proper nutrition. It’s time to move past those sore feelings and toward concrete strategies to help expand your child’s palate.
Although your child may be a picky eater, we urge you to stop using this label in front of them. Kids may internalize the message that they’re picky and use that rationale to refuse trying new foods.
Avoid Value Judgments
The words we use to describe the food we’re eating at family meals are very important. In order to entice your child, try describing, in detail, the foods you’re eating. For example, “these mashed potatoes are so creamy and delicious – yum!” To motivate your children to eat nutritious foods, refer to their “super powers.” For example, “I love carrots, they help my eyes see better!” It may sound silly, but these descriptions can stand out in a child’s mind, inspiring them to try new foods.
It’s also important to avoid making value judgments about food, referring to them as “good” or “bad.” If you tell a child that pizza is “bad,” they may feel guilty after eating it, and guilt is a feeling we want to avoid. Likewise, try not to say things like “salad is yucky” as this might prevent your child from trying it.
Don’t use Food as a Prize
When your child brings home an “A” on their report card, it may be tempting to reward them with a trip to the candy store. However, Compston recommends avoiding food as an incentive for good behavior. Using food as a reward or as a means of comforting an upset child can have negative future consequences. She explains that “as children grow, they may begin to turn food into emotional rewards or punishments.”
In other words, if you don’t want your child to turn to candy for pleasure, then don’t use it as a reward. Instead of rewarding your child with food, discuss other enjoyable rewards, such as a trip to a museum or park, a new book or game.
Make a Plan for Family Meal Time and Stick with It
Consistency and routine are vital to achieving healthy eating habits. Create a consistent daily meal schedule and stick to it to avoid endless snacking. Once your child understands that dinner is at 6 p.m., it will be easier to say no to their 5 p.m. snack request.
Eating dinner at the table together with minimal interruptions is the goal. Yes, this means no TV and asking your child to sit in their chair while they eat. Running around while eating is not only a choking hazard, but also a distraction from both eating and family time.
Tackling meal planning as a family is another way to get your child more excited for meals. Involving children in meal planning, shopping and cooking gives them a greater appreciation for the process.
Once you’ve decided on a dinner menu, it’s important that you stick to it. “It’s time to stop being a short order chef for your child” Compston asserts. Stop preparing them different food than what you’re eating. For example, if you’re serving chicken breasts, broccoli and rice for dinner, serve it to your child too. If they ask for chicken nuggets, gently tell them that nuggets aren’t on the menu tonight.
Don’t Force It
What if, despite your careful planning and preparation, your child refuses to eat their meal? Instead of jumping to prepare something else, calmly tell them that their food will be waiting for them when they’re hungry. Then wrap up their plate, explaining that they can eat the food when they’re hungry. Hopefully they will be ready to eat shortly and the situation will resolve itself with minimal drama.
What if your child has refused their dinner and now it’s time for bed? No parent wants to send their child to bed hungry, however it’s important to keep in mind that if your child was truly hungry they would have eaten their dinner. In the grand scheme of things, refusing to eat one meal will not hurt your child. They ate throughout the day and soon enough it will be breakfast time. Although it may feel harsh, it’s important to persist at mealtime instead of caving in and offering our kids alternatives at their request.
It’s All about Exposure
Instead of forcing or bribing your child to eat something, start thinking about food in terms of exposure. For example, introduce your children to peas at dinner tonight even if they don’t eat them. “A child may need to be exposed to a food dozens or even hundreds of times before they’ll actually eat it and enjoy it,” Compston coaches. This means that looking at, poking, licking and nibbling new foods is part of the learning process. Take the long view and realize that even though your child refused to eat their corn tonight, in three months they may love it!
As parents, we aim go to above and beyond for our children, so it’s understandable that we feel compelled to provide them with endless food options. Remember, the burden of preparing alternative meals for our children won’t serve them (or you) well in the long-run. Instead, focus on preparing and enjoying meals together, as a family.
For more advice and family meal ideas, visit Elise’s blog, Straight Outta Compston Kitchen.