Creating a Mealtime Routine that Works for Your Family
Mealtimes at home have the potential to be happy and family-centered parts of our day, yet so many obstacles seem to keep this from becoming a reality. Think children refusing to eat their veggies (or anything at all!), struggling to sit for longer than a few minutes, or demanding different foods than what was offered. Tackle each of those challenges on top of other ones (tantrums, exhaustion, picky eating, etc) and mealtime quickly becomes a dreaded, tiring (read: impossible) event that likely feels like trying to swim through mud.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Just like any part of raising children (or life in general), mealtime will never be “perfect.” But it is possible to cultivate a routine managing that time of day with less stress and more confidence. Mealtime for young children can be a very emotional, personal process. Every family’s needs and desires are different, and thus mealtime in each home may (and should) look different.
Navigating mealtimes isn’t JUST about the food
It’s also centered around behavior, emotion and trust. The long-term goal of managing mealtime is to teach our children to build a positive relationship with food, and to help them learn to follow and trust their own hunger and fullness cues. We want to help you do that!
Here are a few things to consider as you work to navigate mealtime with your family.
Note: if your child has a medical condition that requires nutrition therapy or feeding interventions, that is outside our scope of practice and should be discussed with a medical professional.
1). Divide Responsibiliy
The “Division of Responsibility” model has been curated by the Ellyn Satter Institute and is based on their research of optimal childhood feeding practices. The model looks like this: During mealtime in your home, each person has a responsibility. You (the parent(s) or caregiver(s)) are responsible for choosing what food is served, where it is served, and when it is served. Once served, your child(ren) are responsible for choosing what and how much of the offered food they consume. Essentially, once you serve the plate of food to your child, your responsibility is complete and they will now take over. This sounds extremely anxiety inducing, right? Depending on the age(s) of your child(ren), suddenly giving them complete control over what to eat or not eat can go a variety of ways. This is where trust comes in. All children have the innate ability to eat intuitively. When we pressure children to eat certain foods, research has shown that they don’t learn to choose those foods when given the opportunity on their own, and may even develop negative feelings towards those foods as they get older. Thus, a valuable investment in nurturing our children’s eating habits is to teach them to trust their own intuitions. Avoid pressuring and bribing and once you’ve prepared their meal, give them the control.
Tip 1: If your child leaves a significant amount of food on their plate at the end of a meal, simply wrap it up and offer it again when he/she declares they are hungry again!
Tip 2: Behavior vs. Hunger? Using this model, if your child scarfs down EVERYTHING on their plate and demands more food, use your judgment. It is okay, and sometimes necessary, to say NO. You can teach them that for now, mealtime is over, but we can check in with how their tummy feels later on. However, remember that you know your child best. If they’re exhibiting signs of hunger, offer more food.
2). Exposure is Key
Though research suggests against pressuring children to eat specific foods, that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t continue to expose them to a variety of foods, even foods they continue to ignore or dislike. Our children’s palates are constantly growing and changing, and their flavor preferences are expected to vary. Knowing this, what tastes good to them one day may be repulsive the next, and vice versa (which can make you want to pull your hair out!). Be prepared for this evolving change in preference and roll with it.
Feel free to get creative with exposure as well! “Eating the rainbow” can be a fun challenge for kids, as you offer them foods in a variety of colors. Offer different combinations of foods frequently, or offer dips (e.g., ketchup, ranch dressing, yogurt) alongside the meal. Sometimes the combinations that are appetizing to our children can be quite surprising!
3). Avoid completely eliminating foods (unless medically necessary, of course).
With so much pressure from the media (and let’s face it, from family and friends) about what kids “should” or “shouldn’t” be eating, it can feel impossible to make the right choices with regard to what you offer them. One common practice I have seen is for families to choose to eliminate sugar from their children’s diets. While this usually does come with the best of intentions (we all want our kids to be healthy and strong!), research cautions against this practice. One study found that when specific foods were “forbidden” to children, they consumed significantly higher amounts of that food when it became readily available to them (picture a child who never permitted to eat baked goods, but then offered cupcakes at a birthday party). What this study reinforces is that managing mealtime and food intake isn’t JUST about the food. There are psychological factors in play as well. Thus, while choosing and managing food intake is part of any mealtime, we ultimately want to use eating experiences to encourage our children to be confident and intuitive eaters, habits that can have a much greater impact on overall health and well-being than whether or not an occasional cupcake is consumed.
4). Be mindful of how you interact with food around your children.
In the interest of fostering life-long positive eating habits, studies have found that parents and teachers can have a huge impact on a child’s attitude towards food. From how you talk about food to your own eating practices, your child will notice and internalize what they hear and observe. One study examined preschool children’s attitudes toward food. Among other findings, one notable conclusion was that children are more likely to try a food if they observe an adult eating it and commenting positively about it.
Beyond influencing children to try new foods, adult language and behavior can impact the way children understand their hunger and fullness cues as well. This is something I’ve noticed most substantially in my own work with children. For example, while eating lunch at school, I intentionally find moments to narrate my hunger cues and food choices (e.g., “My tummy is hungry! I’m excited to eat my pasta today,” or “My tummy is feeling kind of full, I think I’m all done eating my lunch right now.”). My “lightbulb” moment came when a student began emulating my language. I overheard her say to herself, “My tummy is hungry. Tummy, do you want mango or crackers? Hmmm. My tummy wants both! I’m making a mango cracker sandwich.”
5). What is developmentally appropriate?
When it comes to appropriate expectations at mealtimes, there are two things to consider: What is an appropriate amount of food to offer your child, and what behavioral expectations make sense for your child. But HOW do you know what is developmentally appropriate?! Here are some tips to tackle each of these questions:
- Amount of food: Talk to your pediatrician about appropriate recommendations for food intake. While there are general guidelines, it’s important to remember that appetite and caloric need will vary from child to child, and even from day to day! All children are built differently and have unique nutritional needs. This loops us back to the benefits of fostering intuitive eating practices in children. They are fantastic at understanding their hunger and fullness cues until they are taught that those cues don’t matter (e.g., if they are forced to eat beyond fullness).
- Behavioral expectations: Again, this can be tricky because it will vary from child to child. Remember that YOU know your child better than anyone else. You have a sense of what they are capable of and what may be pushing it. If your child struggles to attend to an activity for more than a few minutes, they very likely will not be successful at sitting at the dinner table for an extended period of time.
While this may already seem like an overwhelming amount of information to process, we’re only scratching the surface. Each of these strategies can easily seem “black-and-white,” like there is a right or wrong way for implementation, that is certainly not the case. Mealtime is an incredibly complex, thrice daily event with unique considerations per time of day, day of the week, and family circumstances.
There are ways to adapt these strategies to fit your and your family’s needs. Whether you have concerns about offering dessert, navigating meals out at restaurants, or managing differing approaches within your family, your Trustle coach can help. As your Trustle coach gets to know your family, you will work together to figure out how these strategies can best influence your own mealtime routine, resulting in less stress, more confidence, and easy breathing when mealtime rolls around.