The general rule of thumb for harmony at the dinner table is to ignore anything that our parents told us, said to us or did to us. Psychologist and nutritionist have re-written the rules for successfully building positive relationships between families and their food. These five principles will get most families on the right track!
Principle #1 – Do not use food as a threat or reward.
“Eat your vegetables and you can have your pudding!” I think this is a phrase that every parent must have uttered at some stage. Some meals seems to follow an inevitable path to this stage and without realising it parents and children take on very specific personas from the very start of a meal. Parents play the role of the enforcer, policing the food consumption, whilst our children take on the role of the resistor, prodding their food, claiming not to like something they liked just yesterday and counter-negotiating on what should be eaten and when.
Healthcare professionals would argue that this is not the best way to approach a meal time. It is stressful for all involved whereas meal times should be social and relaxing. What’s worse is that using food, especially pudding, as a reward has a really negative impact on a child’s relationship with their food. “Just eat half and then you can have your pudding!”, the message is essentially, “get through the horrible meat and vegetables and then you can have the good bit, the lovely cake!”
Rather than taking on the role of enforcer, parents should simply be a provider of food. Healthy and tasty food should be supplied in a pleasant environment at regular times. The child’s role is to eat. They decide on how much to eat and this could be all of it and then ask for more… or is could be none of it. Both situations are fine. But won’t there be a lot of wasted food? Won’t my child starve? No, not if we follow principle #2.
Principle #2 – The 3 + 2 structure of appropriate portions.
The 3 + 2 structure follows the following rules:
• 3 meals a day plus 2 snacks.
• Served at regular times.
• No snacks within one hour of eating.
• Portion sizes should be appropriate to the child.
• Around 85% of diet should be savoury, 15% sweet (this includes fruit).
• Make food appetising. (you want to eat, look, taste, smell, enviro)
Let’s look at these individually.
3 meals a day plus 2 snacks. The great thing about this approach is that regular feeding means that if a meal is refused it is not a big deal. Most Western kids have no danger of being malnourished or suffer any deficiency in nutrition. By experiencing pressure around food they are much more likely to develop anxiety with food which may lead to much greater problems down the line. If a child refuses a meal it can be taken away and saved for later if not too close to the next meal… or daddy will eat it which seems to be a common theme in our house.
Served at regular times. Who doesn’t love a bit of routine?! Kids are no different. From a young age, kids love routine and it makes parents lives easier too. One less thing to think about and analyse. Meals and snack are not a response to hunger or request, they are just part of daily routine.
No snacks within one hour of eating. Snacks can be anything. It just needs to be a tasty little something to fill the gap between meals, but importantly not within one hour of eating so as to not impact hunger at the meal time. Snacks can include fruit, crackers, toast, nuts, yoghurt, popcorn, cheese even cake. Popular opinion argues that there are no bad foods, as long as they are consumed in appropriate quantities. Cake as a snack is fine, not for every snack, not as a reward but as part of the everyday food we enjoy.
Portion sizes should be appropriate to the child. What is an appropriate size? It varies from child to child but plates of food should not be daunting and where ever possible there should be an option for seconds in need be. Even better, let kids serve themselves from a shared bowl or serving plate, give them responsibility. Have you ever sat down to a meal when you have not been particularly hungry, only to be presented with a huge plate of food? How did that make you feel? We mustn’t serve arbitrary amounts of food. Lean towards a smaller portion with more available and let the kids take responsibility for how much to eat.
Around 80% of diet should be savoury, 20% sweet (this includes fruit). Some guidelines say kids diets should be 85% savoury but as long as it is somewhere in that ball park then we are on the right track. If it sounds like a lot then there are tricks you can use to help. One of my favourites is based on the theory that “your diet is only as good as your options!” If you have a cupboard full of crisps, coke and chocolate then you are making life hard for yourself from the outset. Keep healthy snacks at hand and reduce the pleading for high sugar and processed snacks, by all means eat chocolate but don’t keep a ready supply in the house.
Make food appetising. The basic rule here is to serve food to your kids that you would be happy to eat yourself. Season the food you cook! How many times have we watched cooking shows and hear the emphasis made about on seasoning? Mary Berry uses salt and pepper, so should we! It is important and as long as you are avoiding processed food and eating real food then correct seasoning should enhance food whilst staying within recommended guidelines for kids. If you are happy to serve a child bread or bacon (two of the highest salt containing foods) then you should be comfortable seasoning a piece of meat. Appetising food is not just about flavour. Our experience of food is formed by look, texture, smell and environment. No one is expecting the family to sit down to a Michelin star candle lit meal every night but efforts made to make food appealing pay dividends. Having a wide variety of tried and tested meals on hand is really useful too, repetition can make meal times boring whilst variety broadens a child’s food comfort zone! If the food isn’t tasty or is repetitive to start with then you are fighting a losing battle.
Principle #3 – Eat the same food and lead by example.
From a young age kids can eat the same as adults. Their palates are similar and although some strong flavours may need adjusting they can enjoy the same food as we do. The concept of “children’s food” is totally made up by some toss pot from a marketing department! Pasta in the shape of cartoon characters and nuggets that look like animals? Please! Even string cheese is just reshaped mozzarella; you just pay double the amount because they are excessively packaged. Be wary of adopting a “kid friendly diet” too. Serving fish fingers, penne pasta with bland tomato sauce or chicken nuggets will not do you any favours in the long run. Most importantly, if kids eat the same as the adults there is only ever one meal to prepare. We are running family kitchens, not on order restaurants. On the topic of restaurants, when eating out ask if half portions of mains are available for kids. Many restaurants will oblige and it saves the monotonous choice between fish fingers and chips, chicken nuggets, sausage and mash, etc.
We need to share both the same food and a positive attitude to food. As parents, we need to be honest with ourselves about our relationship to food. If we eat unhealthily how can we expect our kids to eat healthily? They will pick up our habits whether we realise or not, from any pickiness that we might have to talking negatively about food. It all rubs off. We have to try to be positive and adventurous with our food; eat as we hope our children will grow up to eat.
Principle #4 – Keep calm and carry on!
A lot of tension at meal times can be removed by giving up your power and letting kids decide how much to eat. Being confident that a child is eating sufficient on the 3 + 2 structure allows parents to relax and everyone can concentrate on eating and enjoying their own food.
The language used at the table is important. Criticism of food should be avoided, but both kids and adults. Works like ‘yuck’ should be banned. It is fine if you don’t like something, just leave it. What we say to our kids is also important. Parents are advised not to over praise or criticise kids eating. Praising a child for eating implies that they have achieved something that was difficult of overcome a challenge, eating dinner should be neither of these. Equally, we should not label our kids. If you tell a child that they are a fussy eater, or that they don’t like something then that prophecy is likely to come true.
Coming to the dinner table should be an enjoyable part of the day. It should be a calm environment, free from distractions of toys and tv of screens. Manners should be enforced at an age appropriate level, decide what is important. If your four year old eats faster than your 2 year old then should we expect them to sit still and politely wait for their sibling to finish? Maybe for a while but this can be a losing battle. Experts suggest that if a child want to go and play (probably not watch tv) between main and dessert then they are unlikely to grow up being a Neanderthal at the table! We have to remember, kids have their whole childhood to build their relationship with food, plenty of time to try lots of things and learn the ins and outs of eating, cooking and table manners. It is an ongoing process for which the whole family needs to be on board in moving in the right direction.
Principle #5 – Eat, cook and enjoy food together.
Eating together is not always possible. From talking to parents, it appears that is it more and more common for there to be two evening meal sittings during the week; an early on for the kids and then a later one for the parents depending on work commitments. There is no way around this for most families but the best can be made of the situation by eating together when you can eating the same food, regardless of timings. The advantages of eating together are great. It is an opportunity for parents to be a role model for their children in how they eat and how they behave but perhaps more importantly shared meal times are social and a great time to actually talk to each other… no screens, no distractions.
Getting kids involved in preparing food also has huge benefits. Kids who help to cook (even when their ‘help’ might not be ideally timed!) tend to have better relationships and understandings about food. It teaches skills like, maths, measuring, develops fine motor skills, taste, responsibility and self-sufficiency. Cooking also gets kids familiar with a wider variety of ingredients too, no one wants to be the parent of the kid who can’t tell Jamie Oliver what a potato look like if he comes to visit! Home cooked meals also tend to be more nutritious than their store bought counterparts and are more economical too.
In summary, having a relax approach to eating and principles that guide the path is a win/win situation. The benefits for parents are that they don’t have to take the role of the enforcer; they can simply enjoy their food. For the kids, the pressure is off and they will more likely than not eat well and enjoy their food and be free from anxiety associated with food. These guidelines are general and many of them are directed at ‘fussy eaters’ but they are applicable to all dinner tables whether the kids are fussy or not. These principles help grease the wheels of a stress free meal time. There are many professionals out there who can help if the problem is greater than simply a battle of wills at meal times but for those of us luck enough to have ‘normal’ kids with ‘normal’ meal time challenges then these principles should make everyone’s life easier!