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Family Mealtimes: Instilling Healthy Habits in Kids

As a parent, your days are probably pretty stressful. You get the older kids off to school, run errands, keep the household running smoothly and maintain your career. At the end of a hard day, you just want to relax and spend some quality time with your family.

But if you’re like most busy parents, relaxation time is nothing more than wishful thinking. As the house fills up again at night, there’s noise, tantrums and disorganization, which seem to last until everyone falls asleep.

Mealtime, whether it’s breakfast together or a family dinner, doesn’t have to be as stressful as the rest of your day. Here are some tips to handle picky eaters, set an example of healthy eating (which children learn from their parents), and make your meals together a more positive experience:
  • Try to serve food in a comfortable, relaxed and unhurried atmosphere.
  • Encourage a child’s participation in meal preparation (measuring, stirring, decoration, cutting and arranging)
  • Food should be warm or cool, (not hot or cold); a child’s mouth is more sensitive than an adult’s
  • Flavors should be mild, not spicy; a child has more taste buds than an adult
  • If the child is able, give her a small, mini-shopping list to look for a few items on the lower shelves. Make sure the foods are nutritious and easy to handle.
  • If you want to avoid waste, serve smaller portions. Don’t encourage overeating or fussy eaters by forcing a child to eat everything on the plate.
  • Let your child learn to feed her or himself. Be patient. To ease the mess, put newspaper under the chair and have a towel ready to wipe up spills.
  • Serve food with child-sized plates and cups.
  • If possible, plan rest or quiet time before meals. A tired or overly excited child may be less hungry at mealtimes.
  • When introducing a new food, try serving it during the same meal as a favorite food.
  • Make pre-meal hand-washing a pleasant event. Allow time for the child to enjoy the splash of soap and water. A quick, forced washing, particularly after the food is served, may make a child too upset to eat well at the meal.
  • Set a good example. If other people at the table enjoy a variety of foods, your child will learn by copying what you do.
  • If your child appears to have lost interest in the meal, give him/her a reasonable time to eat (20-30 minutes) then quietly but firmly remove the food. Most children will eat when they are hungry. Do not force the issue.
  • Likes and dislikes may appear suddenly. Be casual about these new food notions. If no one pays special attention to these quirks, they will soon be outgrown.
  • Do not coax, play games or force your child to eat. Make a wide variety of nutritious foods available to your child, and then let your child decide what to eat.
  • Small children prefer to eat with their fingers. Give them small sandwiches, raw veggies, meat cut into bite sizes, fruits and cheese cut into small pieces, and crackers spread with peanut butter or cottage cheese.
  • Be casual about desserts, and make them a part of the total meal plan when they are served. Placing special attention on desserts, or using them as rewards only, makes them more desirable than other foods.
  • Let your child be the judge about how much to eat. Appetite may vary from one meal to another, and from day to day. Never make an issue of food acceptance. You provide the nutritious choices, and then let the child choose among them.
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Member Comments

Thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Mealtimes were more of a special event before TV's and Cell phones. Report
Good job Report
Great reading Report
Good tips! Report
Good advice Report
Good article. Report
Good advice. Report
Great advice Report
Love the ideas Report
Good advice Report
When my son was younger, I used to enjoy mealtime together.. But now that he has gotten older (almost 18) we eat at different times and enjoy different types of food. Report
Great article. But I always put veggies out and told them they had to eat a veggie. And even my grandchildren the same way. When they went to the doctor they ask do they eat veggies and they would say only at my nana house. Well the doctor told them they need to eat a veggie everyday. Told the parents to make sure they get them because it was health for them. Report
If a child doesn't seem to care for a new vegetable, then fix two veggies at each meal and let him or her choose. That way, they can have some choice in what they eat, but will learn that both are good options. You and the others can then eat whatever vegetable is not favored. Soon your child will learn by copying what he sees other people choosing.

As a kid, I went trhu stages where I ate broccoli florets, then only the stalks, then finally all of the plant. Different textures at varying stages of my development. Now I eat the whole thing, and many others. But some veggies have taken years to learn to like or at least eat. I will never love spinach but I can get some down now - if its raw or chopped very fine and cooked into soup with many others. Okra on the other hand will always be nasty. But I love eggplant, peppers, beets, burssel sprouts, and many more so who cares if your kid won't eat all his veggies as long as he eats some. Report
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About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.