Family Meal Times: How To Feed Children Without the Struggle
There are some crazy emotions that come with being a parent. I have experienced many of them first hand this past year with my little 11 month old daughter. A major one I would like to discuss is WORRY.
Parents worry that their child is:
- warm enough OR is overdressed,
- sleeping properly,
- reaching his/her milestones,
- eating or drinking enough of the healthy foods…
- eating or drinking too much of the wrong foods…
… and the list goes on!
Raising Children with Healthy Attitudes Towards Food:
When it comes to food, I know as a parent I just want my little girl to grow the way she was meant to grow, and to be healthy. I want her to eat enough, but not too much. And trying to find this balance can lead parents to dictate how much little ones should eat. The issue with this approach is that parents don’t know how much our little ones need. Everyone has a different metabolism. Also, if I dictate how much my preschooler needs to eat, she will never learn to listen to her body. What will she do when she is older and I’m not there to tell her how much to eat? On top of that, every meal (and I mean EVERY MEAL) will be a battle between parent and child over how much to eat, what to eat, finishing vegetables before dessert, etc. NO FUN!
Personally, this is not a family mealtime experience I want to have, day after day! Especially when the infant, toddler, preschooler, child, or adolescent has control over eating!!! :)
Creating Competent Eaters:
So how can we raise our children to be competent eaters without fighting about food at every meal? How can we make meal times pleasant and enjoyable, a time for relationship building rather than fighting over broccoli?
First, let’s define a COMPETENT EATER... That means that a child who listens to his body and stops when he has eaten enough, when he is full. According to internationally renowned Pediatric Dietitian Ellyn Satter, there is a “division of responsibility” between parents and infants/children/teenagers when it comes to feeding and meal times. (Ellyn Satter Institute)
Here is the general premise: When your child is fed regularly and predictably every ~3 hours (with no grazing in between meals/snacks), she will be able to determine for herself how much she needs to eat. She will be more willing to try new foods when she is hungry, too.
Family Meal Times:
Your child will also eat better when she eats with family. A “family meal” is defined as at least one parent and at least one child eating together. And research has found that family meals are associated with better eating, good eating patterns, may positively influence such things as disordered eating behaviours, mental health, sexual activity and substance abusethat our children may address especially in their teenage years.
So what is the Division of Responsibility for meal times?
Well, quite simply put: parents have responsibilities around meal times; and children have responsibilities.
PARENTS are responsible for:
- WHAT is offered: family foods. You as mom and dad get to pick what your child will be offered each meal. Be sure to include at least one thing that everyone at the table will eat (e.g. yogurt, or bread, or salad). I generally recommend balancing all meals and snacks with protein(meat/chicken/fish/tofu/dairy/nuts and seeds, etc), heart healthy fat(butter/coconut oil, cream or coconut milk/cream, olives and olive oil, avocado, high fat dressings like Caesar/ranch/sour cream/mayonnaise, etc), and healthycarbohydrates(vegetables, fruits, and starchy vegetables – choose whole foods rather than anything in packages).
- WHERE children eat: at the table. It is very important to turn off the TV, video games, iPad, iPod, etc and put away homework so that there are no distractions and children can eat mindfully. This also allows you to have conversations with your children and eat with them.
- WHEN they are fed: every 3 hours. Yes, that’s right. 3 hours. When we balance our diets with protein, fat, and carbohydrates, we can go longer periods of time without eating! Children do not need to eat every 1-2 hours. In between meals/snacks, it is important that children only be offered water rather than grazing on juice or milk or cookies, or candies, etc. This will ensure that your child is hungry when they do eat, and will be more open to trying new foods.
CHILDREN are responsible for:
- IF THEY WILL EAT. Yes, you read that correctly. Sometimes they choose not to eat. And we as parents need to respect that. Remember that meal when you weren’t hungry? Would you have liked it if someone forced you to eat? No, I know I wouldn’t. So please, respect your child in this way. Now, it is not ok for your child to not eat at a meal, and then demand food 1 hour later. Let them learn that they eat when it’s a meal time, and if they choose not to eat, they need to wait until the next meal or snack.
- HOW MUCH they will eat. Sometimes they will eat a lot, sometimes very little. It is important that we NEVER FORCE OR ENCOURAGE our children to eat more of a specific food then they want. Let them listen to their bodies and stop eating when they are full. Let them explore new foods and slowly grow to like them. When we force children to eat, they will develop negative emotions to eating and to the (likely healthy) foods you are trying to get them to eat. (again, remember our goal is to build competent eaters!).
Using the Division of Responsibility with picky eaters, under eaters, and over eaters:
You might be a little bit skeptical about this approach, especially if you are hearing about it for the first time. I have used this approach in my paediatric clinics with my kiddies who are picky eaters, my kiddies who need to gain more weight, my kiddies who have extra weight and need to grown into their bodies. In other words: it works for EVERYONE in the family. Why? Because it allows us to listen to our bodies and eat until we are full. It takes the away guessing game of 'how much should my child eat to grow properly' - my child will stop when he is full. It takes away the negativity around food and makes meal times happy again.
Here is an example with my almost 2 year old son:
He rarely eats much at breakfast – maybe a few bites; then at lunch he is ravenous and eats a ton! After he wakes up from his nap, he will eat a normal amount of food; and at dinner he may eat a ton, eat very little, or eat an average amount of food. And he is following his growth curve and meeting all his milestones.
Just follow the division of responsibility and stop worrying about who ate their veggies. :)
Coming this week: we will dive deeper into the division of responsibility; and also discuss WHAT to be offering our children more often.
As always, if you have any questions, please email me at email@example.com.
Best of Health,