Nutrition is central to eating but it is not the only element to the family meal. Food can also nourish the emotional needs of a child. The mealtime provides a time to experience social interactions, learn table manners, and experience family values. The types of interactions the child experience during the feeding process shapes the child’s relationship with food for the rest of their life. Parents can stop dinner time battles by concentrating using positive talk, encourage self-feeding skills and offer food sensory exploration opportunities.
To often, parents spend most of their time concentrating on nutrition by measuring calories and counting the intake of fruits and vegetables. I know- this was me. I was obsessed with getting the right colors, enough milk, adequate protein and a healthy dose of vitamins. But then I changed my view. I calmed down when it came to nutrition and began to focus the feeding environment. I opened the door to creating purposeful meals which are vital to the establishment of healthy eating behaviors.
Key Components to Creating a Purposeful Meal with Children
1| Don’t Fight over Food
Mealtimes are not a time to engage in food battles or nag your child to eat. The bottom line, children will eat when they are hungry. Meals offer the best time for family interactions and the linking of generations. The communication chosen at the meal can either nourish the mind and spirit or it can contribute to a stressful meal. If a child feels pressured to eat, they will be more apt to refuse the food and actually eat less calories and nutrients over time.
2| Include in Table Talk
The family meal offers an opportunity to teach social skills such as: table manners, how to take turns, and consideration for others. If children are included in the conversation, not only do they learn to develop an interest in other people but they also learn to respect other viewpoints and opinions of other people.
3| Sense of Belonging
Sitting at a table with family gives the child a sense of community. Family meals represent the unity of family. It is a time to learn about family traditions bringing the family closer to their family roots. Family meals should be a priority. I agree it is difficult to eat 3 meals a day/7 days a week together but you should be able to schedule a portion of your family meals. Even if you get 2-3 meals/week together, it is better than none.
4| Sensory Exploration
Children love to explore their environment with all of their senses using their eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and ears. Infants and young children will pat, smear, taste, smell, spill and poke at their food. A child will refuse food if they do not like they way it looks, smells, or feels. Let them refuse- it is ok. Eventually their curiosity will get the best of them. As food sensations become more familiar, children will accept a food.
5| Relaxation- Eat Slower
Meals have become a time to sit down and relax after a busy day. We digest meals better when we are calm compared to when we are hurried or pressured to eat. Teach your children to eat slowly and chew their food. Too many times we are rushed and swallow large pieces of food leading to poor digestion, gas, bloating and upset bellies. Teach your children to appreciate all of the great things a meal has to offer- aroma, flavor, and texture.
6| The Gift of Life
The appreciation for the sacrifices made for us to eat food is missing in our world today. Convenience foods have taken over our life to the point we are losing the connection between food and nature. The next time you eat, talk to your child about the gift of life. Take your child to meet your local farmer and talk to them about our food sources. Show them how to make jam with the berries you pick.
7| Structured Mealtimes are Essential
Schedules rule our day. Structured mealtimes should not be any different. There is an increased sense of comfort a mealtime schedule. Your child will eat and grow well if you maintain routine.
8| Health & Physical Development
Nutrition is vital to the health and physical development of a child. However, some parents can be over conscious about nutrition. To avoid food battles, many parents will serve the most accepted foods creating food ruts. Meals should purposefully teach variety, moderation, and proportion. Keep control of the menu but offer choices. Continue to make food you (as a parent) enjoys but do not pressure the child to eat it. Always, pair a favorite food with a new food.
9| Food for Celebration
Food is usually the center of a party or holiday celebration. It is a time to link generations, share stories, and explore ethnic background. For example, my family is from the south and on New Year’s we eat black eyed peas and greens to signify money in the new year. Focusing on cultural education should be a priority over candy and other treats.
A child does not feel nourished when:
- they feel pressured to accept and eat food prepared by another person.
- when they are not offered enough calories to meet the demands of their body’s needs.
- they must keep eating when they are full.
- they must stop eating when they are still hungry.
- others make fun of their food preferences.
- they are forced to eat unfamiliar or new foods.
- their meals are boring and offer few opportunities to explore.
- they have no control over the foods offered at the meal.
Birch, L. L. (1998). Development of food acceptance patterns in the first years of life. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 57(4), 617-624.
Birch, L.L., McPhee, L., Shoba, B.C., Pirok, E., & Steinberg, L. (1987). What kind of exposure reduces children’s food neophobia? Looking vs. tasting. Appetite, 9(3), 171-178.
Margetts, B. M., Martizez. J. A., Saba, A., Holm, L., Kearney, M., & Moles, A. (1997). Definitions of “healthy” eating: A pan-EU survey of consumers attitudes to food, nutrition, and health. European Journal of Cllinical Nutrition, 51 (Suppl. 2), S23-S29.