Eating together as a family is how kids learn to make healthy food choices, to communicate with others and to master table manners. And you can’t start too soon, says Cleveland Clinic pediatrician Allison Brindle, MD.
Here are her do’s and don’ts for making mealtimes with young kids go smoothly:
1. Do invite everyone to sit together.
Insist that young kids sit with the family even if they aren’t ready for solids or are refusing to eat. They’ll start to learn the rules of dining. You can make the most of it by:
- Letting your kids see you trying different foods.
- Modeling good social behavior, such as answering questions and not interrupting.
- Limiting meals to a reasonable length of time — about 10 to 20 minutes.
- Setting a timer to reinforce the time expectation if necessary.
2. Do let kids choose from what’s on the table.
Toddlers are often picky eaters, which can be frustrating. Let them choose from what’s on the table. It’s OK if they choose just one or two things. “You are not a short-order cook. Make a decision about what you will serve, and stick to it. If your child does not want to eat all or part of the meal, do not make them something different,” says Dr. Brindle.
Accept that some meals will be devoured and others untouched. Any given day isn’t going to be perfect. Over the course of time, if you routinely offer a variety of foods, your child will get the nutrition he or she needs.
Don’t expect your kids to eat as much as you do. Their portion sizes are in proportion to their age and body size. An adult serving of meat is about the size of the palm of the adult’s hand. A child-sized serving of meat is about the size of the palm of the child’s hand.
3. Do keep trying if you don’t succeed.
Studies show that kids can be exposed to a food 10 to 20 times before they decide to eat it. It can take another 10 to 20 tries before they determine if they like it.
“That is 40 times that they have to get broccoli before they actually come to a conclusion about it,” says Dr. Brindle.
So if your child rejects something, try again in a few weeks, she advises. Also, occasionally letting them choose which vegetable to serve for dinner can help. “The sense of pride they get increases their willingness to eat it,” she says.
Dr. Brindle suggests pairing new foods with foods children like to help them feel more comfortable. Offering a variety of colors and textures is important, especially with fruits and vegetables. A child who never sees a green vegetable will become an adult who never eats a green vegetable.
4. Don’t make kids finish dinner to get dessert.
Many parents insist that kids clean their plates in order to get dessert. “There is no magical quantity for how much they need to eat to earn dessert,” says Dr. Brindle. “But they should have made a reasonable attempt to try the meal.”
5. Don’t forbid any foods.
Perhaps your child is overweight. You may be tempted to make some foods completely off-limits. However, kids are drawn to “forbidden” foods. They’ll overeat them whenever they get the chance.
Instead, take a balanced approach. Allow soft drinks on pizza nights or sweets in moderation. “Find a way to incorporate these foods on occasion, and they will have a healthier approach to them,” Dr. Brindle advises.
In the next issue of Parents Be Well: Keep Your Teen at the Family Table