Keeping the dinner table a positive space

Good eating habits as a child make for a positive relationship to food later in life.
Good eating habits as a child make for a positive relationship to food later in life.

I was planning a post on boosting your toddler’s nutrition but it then occurred to me that it would be beneficial to start at the beginning: The Dinner Table.  There are some standard practices in our culture that create tension at the dinner table and cause our relationship to food to be skewed.

Here are some eating basics.  Following some general rules will keep meal time a positive experience and stop meals from becoming a tug of war between parent and stubborn child:

Remind yourself as often as necessary that your child will not voluntarily starve themselves to death.  After yet another day of your child seeming to survive on air and a carrot stick, repeat this mantra to yourself and get a good sleep.  It can be a huge worry when you scrawny 3-year-old runs around for 10 hours and seems to barely take a bite of anything on their plate, but they won’t starve.  Keep putting out snack and offering bites here and there.  I’ll also be doing another post on boosting nutritional intake, so take a look at some of those suggestions too.

Children prefer their meals “Military Style”.  What does this mean exactly?  It means to serve the food in separate piles (not touching one another) or in a tray/plate that has dividers.  As an adult I love the one pot meal with everything cooked together, but that’s not a battle I’m going to win with my child.  They generally like simple foods in separate piles.  Vegan Mother Hubbard illustrates this well on her site, so check it out.   Mixed foods are not out of the question, but you’ll see they are one small pile within a bigger meal plan.

Have food ready and let young children leave when they are done.  Sitting children down when food is not ready and making them wait for everyone to finish does not work for young children.  They need to sit, eat and go.  Younger kids can be quite insistent when they are ready to eat and perhaps that does not coincide with when dinner is ready.  There is no point trying to put little ones off.  You don’t want to teach them to ignore their body so find a snack that will keep them busy till dinner is ready.  If it’s something healthy then who cares if it “ruins” their appetite for dinner?

Ask them to try everything but don’t push and don’t force them to eat any of it.  I’ve definitely failed in this area several times.  I’ve made all of my child’s food since birth and that takes an effort so I can easily get tied up feeling like she is wasting my time, effort, and food.  When you step back from this mind-set you will have more success.  Children are stubborn and like to test boundaries, so you being equally stubborn just sets up a battle.  By you’re “not caring” (and let’s face it you care a lot) they feel relaxed about testing something because they know they won’t be made to eat it all if they do not like it.

Offer only healthy options.  If your whole meal is healthy then it really doesn’t matter if they don’t want to eat everything.  Sure you may worry about it being balanced but you have 3 meals and 2 snacks per day to offer the other food groups.  Don’t get stuck on fitting in protein & fruit & veggies & grains in every sitting.

Don’t make them sit until they are finished.  “You can’t leave the table till you clean your plate!” is something that many of us were taught in our own childhood and it is something that is contributing to childhood obesity.  For one, meals being served are less healthy and larger than they have ever been before.  And two, we are training children to ignore their body’s signal that they are full.  Instead of making them stuff themselves at one meal, put the food aside and offer it again at another.  After offering it twice though I’d ditch it~ again, we aren’t trying to make tuna casserole into Custer’s last stand.

Have children help make meals and put away groceries.  Even though still a toddler, my child stands on a stool at the counter and puts the vegetable cuttings into the composting container for me while I prep dinner.  When we put our groceries away she takes them all out of the bags for us.  The food is littered around our kitchen floor.  We name everything as it’s put away.  Often the fruits and vegetables have tiny teeth marks on them. This is the slowest and least efficient way to put groceries away but it connects her to the food she will eventually see on her plate.

Never assume they don’t like something.  You’ve given her spinach many times before.  She hates it.  My advice, try again.  Never omit a type of food from a child’s meal based on past preferences.  Their tastes are always changing and they may even like something because it’s prepared differently.  Example: My child loves cheese and toast, but hates grilled cheese.  She dislikes spinach but will eat it on pizza without issue.

You should always role-mode the behaviour that you want from a child, and that includes eating habits.  If you sit down and eat a balanced meal in proper portion sizes, your kids will learn from that.  You want to model eating a range of foods too but, don’t be a fake.  “Mmmmmm, that roasted beet is sooooo good” you exclaim to your child.  “You should have some!  So good!”  Then you turn away, make an eww` face and surreptitiously spit it into your napkin. It is okay for YOU to not like a food, just as it is okay that they do not.  This is an opportunity for you to show them how to try a food before you decide you don’t want to eat more.  You don’t need to be dramatic or make faces.  Just try it and move on.  It’s what you’d like them to do.

Your kitchen is not an endless supply of alternative foods.  The tendency when a child does not want to eat the meal they are being served is to find something they will.  Some parents even fall into the trap of making two meals: one for the kids and one for the parents.  The more you serve your kids the same food as the adults the more they will learn to eat it.  A balanced meal usually involves a few separate dishes so your child still gets choices but they are limited to what the family is eating.

Take a look at my post on boosting your toddler meals to pack in more nutrition.

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