Whenever I talk about family meals with clients I can immediately see the overwhelm on their faces. Many of the families I work with struggle to get everyone together at the table for a meal. I get it! After a full day of work getting meals on the table with young kids can be a challenge, especially with differing bedtime schedules.
Having a family meal doesn’t have to mean a formal sit down dinner. It can be any meal where someone is eating together with the kids.
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Make family meals a shared experience
A few weeks ago when I picked my daughter up from my in-law’s house, I asked for the rundown of how the day went. I love getting a report on how she ate, slept and how many times she went to the bathroom. I know, I’m a bit crazy, but it helps me keep track of her schedule.
My father in law proceeded to tell me that she ate about a half cup of broccoli for breakfast! That shocked me at first, mostly because she has begun to enter the dreaded picky eating phase. She often doesn’t prefer broccoli when I make it for her. When I asked him about it, he mentioned that he made himself broccoli and was sitting down with her for breakfast and she reached for it. So he handed her some and she kept going back for more.
She was much more interested in the broccoli when it was a shared experience with her grandfather than when she is sitting in her highchair and eating a meal alone.
The shared experience of eating with another person, parent, grandparent, caregiver, etc. can go a long way to help encourage trying new foods. Now, I am not saying this exact scenario is going to work perfectly every time. But, starting to incorporate more family meals into the routine can have a big impact over time.
The social benefit of family meals
Family meals might be the best-kept secret to address picky eating, nutrition, and even mental health issues in your family. This can work with children of all ages, starting in infancy and going through high school (and beyond). If you have a picky eater at home, be sure to grab this free download with practical tips to get you started.
Research has shown that children eat more nutritious foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and calcium-rich foods when participating in family meals. They also have fewer nutrient deficiencies, better and better academic success as they get older.
Laying the foundation for family meals when your kids are young can help this become a habit as they transition into school. Children with families that regularly incorporate family meals have been shown to spend more time in healthful, extracurricular activities.
Initially, it may seem impossible to juggle work and getting dinner on the table, when you have a crying baby on your hip or a whining toddler glued to your leg. Those early years can be rough.
Start small, even just a couple of family meals each week can create a positive experience for your children.
Eating with kids may improve picky eating
Making an effort for a sit-down, family meal and/or snack is one of the secrets to helping your child develop independence and autonomy. This strengthens their food relationship and provides learning opportunities for proper table manners and social skills.
Family meals promote your ability to maintain the Division of Responsibility (DOR) in feeding your kids.
Family meals help with the DOR because they give your child the opportunity to determine the “if and how much” for the foods you prepare. During meal and snack times, you provide a variety of both nutrient-rich and *Fun Foods* and they can decide if they are going to eat them and how much of them they will eat.
Family style serving
Serving your family meals “family style” is also a fun way for them to learn to self serve as they get older. Family style meals are when you serve the foods in bowls on the table and allow your kids to self serve their food. This is in contrast to the pre-plating method.
Family style serving works best for kids starting around 4 years of age, but you can still serve meals family style earlier and assist your young children in what goes on their plate.
Family meals help expose your child to new foods in a calm, relaxed, and natural setting. They also take the pressure off.
When everyone is together at the table and new foods are presented it takes the pressure off your child. When they are sitting alone in their chair and “all eyes are on them” having a new food item on the plate can feel big and overwhelming.
How to improve picky eating at meals
Make it a trip
Especially for picky or selective eaters, exposure to new foods in non-pressure ways is key. One non-pressure way to expose them to food is by taking them to the grocery store. The grocery store (or farmers market) offers a fun atmosphere to see new things with zero pressure to eat them.
Get everyone involved
Let your kids help you in the kitchen. Depending on their age, children can help with various tasks. For toddlers, get a stool and let them stand at the counter with you. They can help dump ingredients into bowls or play with measuring cups. For older children, they can tear lettuce, wash produce or help set the table. Help them advance their skills as they age.
Let your kids have input on your weekly menu
When your kids get a say in the foods they eat it can enhance the eating experience. Remind children that they get one day a week to pick their special meal and they will get their chance again during the following week. If you have more than one child, let them each pick one meal. This will also help them be more open to other days when they didn’t get to pick the menu. For snacks, offer them two choices and let them pick the ones they want. Here is a free download with snack ideas to help you out.
Keep mealtimes fun, low stress, and distraction-free
Family meals are a great way to unplug and connect with each other. Starting when your kids are young, try and make it a rule to turn the TV off, keep phones away from the meal area and have conversations with your kids. It’s okay to play fun games with talking and or table cards to take the pressure off the meals and keep your kids at the table longer.
Introduce new foods regularly
Having family meals provides a way to expose your child to new food in a non-threatening and non-overwhelming way. Serve new foods alongside favorite foods to help take the pressure off. This works great for non-preferred dishes and vegetables. Studies show that the variety of foods you expose your child to during family meal times are the foods they are more likely to accept and like as they get older.
Include several food groups (components) at each meal
Serving a variety of foods is the key to maximizing nutrition and also ensuring your child will try new things. Meal components are a good way to ensure the meal is balanced with different groups. At each meal, aim to serve: 1. Protein 2. Grain 3. Fruit 4. Vegetable. Some ideas include brown rice or quinoa, several servings of vegetables like a beautiful salad or roasted Brussels sprouts, a couple of servings of fruit like berries or chopped mango, a protein-source like baked wild cod or roasted chicken. If you have a milk-loving kid, including milk (or milk alternative) on the table can provide comfort and help them know there is always something there they can enjoy.
Incorporate fun foods
Part of meals includes offering a variety of different foods. This includes fun foods such as french fries, fried food, sweets/desserts, etc. These should not make up the majority of the foods you serve in a day but should be offered regularly as part of the overall structure. Allowing your children access to fun foods will help normalize them, this is helpful as they get older or they may be led to overindulge when available. If you serve a dessert at a meal, allow your child to eat it regardless of the quantity of dinner they chose to eat. This promotes trust.
Allow children to serve themselves
By the time children are at 4-5 years old, they might be able to hold serving plates and platters and serve themselves. Allowing children this kind of independence helps them to strengthen the connection to their internal regulation system.
Be a positive role model
Children tend to be pretty skeptical about trying new foods. They are more likely to try something if they see someone else doing it. Family meals are great for this! Model food acceptance by also choosing a variety of foods on your own plate at meal times.
Try to keep the feeding environment low stress. Low stress=more meal success.