Meal times with young children can be stressful, especially after a day at work or a day caring for them. And if they refuse to eat the nutritious dinner you’ve cooked, this can easily lead to frustration.
Here are six things you could do to make meal times a bit less stressful.
Tip 1: Get them involved
Avoid doing it all yourself, because kids can help in the kitchen too. Get them involved in food preparation and they may become more interested in food and willing to taste new things.
Most often, adults prepare meals for children to eat. But involving children in preparing, cooking and even growing food can be an opportunity to teach them about healthy eating. Research shows involving children in this way can influence their food preferences, attitudes and behaviours.
Even very young children can help with setting the table, washing ingredients, measuring and mixing. Involving kids in food-related activities leads to increased positive emotions in children, more confidence in selecting and eating healthy foods, and a greater liking and eating of fruit and vegetables – as well as being more willing to taste new ones.
Even very young children can help with setting the table, washing ingredients, measuring and mixing.
Tip 2: Make sure they come to the table hungry
There’s nothing like hunger to encourage a child to try something they might not like. Eating in the hour or two before dinner is enough to put anyone off their meal. This is particularly true for children.
The best way to avoid this is to set up a meal-time routine. Children respond well to knowing what is going to happen and when, so consistently offer three meals and three snacks each day (every two to three hours, for instance).
Importantly, children should not graze in between on anything other than water – even a little milk, juice or a few crackers can spoil a child’s appetite.
Tip 3: Turn off all the screens
With access to screens and devices within arm’s reach, it can be hard to switch off. You should aim to turn off all screens and other devices and connect with each other as a family.
Connecting as a family over a shared meal is associated with a healthy diet and promotes a positive eating environment for children. Eating meals together as a family encourages mindful eating and family discussion about the day.
Tip 4: Let them decide how much to eat
Sometimes it can be tempting to force kids to eat all of what’s on their plate, or to bribe them with dessert in exchange for eating more of their meal. But children have a natural ability to self-regulate their eating in response to internal hunger cues, which can easily be overridden by emotional cues or demands from adults.
So instead of pushing for your child to eat a certain amount , apply a “division of responsibility” at meal times. You can use what is called the “parent provides, child decides” strategy. Here you provide nutritious food to your child and allow him or her to use their innate ability to self-regulate their appetite and decide if, and how much, they eat.
Try not to offer an alternative or enter into any trade-offs with your child. This will tell your child they have control over the situation when you should ultimately be in control.
Tip 5: Serve only one meal for the whole family
Save time, money and stress by offering one meal for the whole family. It can be disappointing if your child doesn’t eat or won’t even try the meal you have made. But you shouldn’t force or bribe your child to eat. So, what do you do?
As above, ensuring your child comes to the table hungry will help. Try not to offer an alternative or enter into any trade-offs with your child. This will tell your child they have control over the situation when you should ultimately be in control.
Regularly or willingly offering alternatives you know they will like won’t give them the repeated exposure they need to accept and like new foods. It is also important for all family members (adults and children) to have the same family meal where possible as role modelling of eating behaviours improves children’s intake.
Children do not eat well when they are pressured to eat and will not starve to death if they miss a meal or two.
Tip 6: Stay calm!
Pressuring or encouraging children to eat is a strategy often used by parents to increase a child’s eating. But such practices are not effective in improving children’s intake and can lead to an unhealthy relationship with specific foods.
This works both ways, such as explicitly encouraging or praising children for eating a lot or everything on their plate (“Good girl for eating all of that, Lily”) or making meals a battleground if not much is eaten (“Be a good girl for mummy and eat a bit more please, Lily”).
The best results come from responding in a neutral way, with as little emotion as possible (“Are you finished, Lily?”). Adding stress to the situation will only result in less food eaten.
Children do not eat well when they are pressured to eat and will not starve to death if they miss a meal or two. If your child refuses a meal or does not eat anything in about 15 to 20 minutes, calmly remove his or her food.
Carly Moores, Post-doctoral research assistant in childhood overweight, Flinders University; Jacqueline Miller, Senior Lecturer and SAHMRI Fellow, Flinders University, and Lucinda Bell, Research Associate, University of South Australia