Ask the RD: 8 Tips for Happier, Healthier Family Meal Time
If you’re in charge of feeding your family, you know it is often met with challenges along the way. In fact, it’s one of the most common questions and concerns we hear from parents. How do you make meal times pleasant and peaceful, while promoting nutritious eating and a healthy relationship with food? Here are 8 tips that will help the two co-exist.
1. Make family meals a priority, no matter what’s being served.
It can be a challenge in our time crunched world to put together a “perfect” healthy meal and make time to sit down together. But meals don’t have to be perfect to be positive. Simply focusing on making family meals happen is a huge step in the right direction. Research shows that time spent at family meals is related to better nutrition, behavior, and success in children, adolescents, and teens. Even if the meal isn’t your idea of perfect –even if it’s takeout or fast food– getting it on the table for all to eat together is helping your family connect and promoting a healthier relationship with food. That’s important stuff.
2. Practice division of responsibility.
Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian, family therapist, and well known feeding expert, pioneered a method she calls the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. In this method, a parent’s job is to set the meal times and choose the food served, and children decide what and how much of it to eat. When applied to family eating, it has been shown to consistently promote less stressful and more positive meal times. As the parent or caregiver, aim to offer a variety of healthful options, with one or two foods that even the pickiest in your family will enjoy. Let your child select the foods he or she eats, and how much of them. Once you’ve done your job, let go of the stress of whether or not they eat/don’t eat something. It can be hard to get used to at first, but children are more likely to come around to trying new foods and eating family meals when they don’t feel pressured.
3. Stick to a (flexible) meal and snack schedule.
Sticking to a schedule helps both adults and kids. Having meals and snacks at relatively consistent times each day will help kids get into a routine where they are hungry enough to eat well at meal times, but not so hungry that they get upset or overeat at meals. Snacks should be like mini-meals (not treats) and at planned times throughout the day. Avoid allowing kids to graze on snacks, which makes them less likely to be hungry enough to eat well at meal times. Snacks are also a great way to offer foods from groups that may not represented at other meals.
4. Limit distractions.
Turn off the TV and leave phones and tablets out of sight during meals.
5. Be considerate without catering.
Offer one family meal, but make sure at least part of the main entree or 1-2 of the sides are foods that even the pickiest of eaters at your table will enjoy and fill up on. Young kids often prefer foods to be separate, and that’s ok. For example, if you’re making stir-fry as the entree, set aside some of each component such as brown rice or another grain, broccoli or veggie, and protein (chicken, fish, beef, edamame, tofu, etc) to offer separately. You can still softly encourage your child to try some of the mixed dish, but don’t pressure. Offer a favorite fruit as a side, and a dipping sauce like yogurt. If it’s a meal that you can’t easily serve separate, serve a couple sides you know they’ll enjoy.
6. Serve family style.
Rather than plating each person’s meal, put food in serving dishes on the table and allow family members to chose what and how much they put on their plates.
7. Lead by example.
Even when kids are only eating one food from the table, watching you enjoy a variety of foods will eventually rub off on them. It may take time (more time then you’d like), but this is the best way to encourage your kids to develop healthy habits with food. Keep talk regarding food, and talk in general, positive while at the table. Resist the urge to label foods and as good or bad, and show kids that trying a new food is fun and can lead to finding something new to love.
8. Involve kids in prep and cooking.
Even simple tasks, such as stirring ingredients into a dip, putting cut veggies into bowls, or arranging fruits and veggies on a platter can make kids feel a part of the effort, and encourage them to try new things.
Click here for even more tips for how to live a healthy lifestyle as a family, especially on Mother’s Day.