Can Family-Style Meals Improve Your Kid’s Eating?
What are some of the ways you have tried to change your kid’s eating habits? Need some fresh ideas?
Needing ways to improve your kid’s eating habits is completely normal. More and more parents are feeling like short-order cooks and feel like the kitchen is a chore.
To help us find ways to improve our kid’s eating, I sought out Jill Castle, a registered dietitian and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.
When I embarked on writing my book, a childhood nutrition and feeding resource, I knew I wanted to show parents an easy way to feed their kids at mealtime, one that melted away the tension and improved overall eating and enjoyment. Here, I tell my story.
When my oldest daughter was 9 (and my other three children were 7, 6, and 4), I gave up “plating” their meals. I decided they needed to learn how to feed themselves and that they were better than I was at knowing how hungry they were and what they liked to eat.
I placed our mealtime food items in bowls and platters and set them in the center of the table. We gave thanks, and I said to my oldest, who was 9 at the time, “Why don’t you start with the chicken, take what you want, and pass it around the table.”
Everyone looked at me, including my husband.
“That’s right,” I said, “I have been doing this meal thing all wrong. You know what you like to eat, and how much food is right for your appetite, so you can pick and choose from the meal as we pass things around. The only rule is that this is the meal. No other alternatives. If you need help, let me know.”
Still, they stared.
Then, my 7-year-old said with disbelief, “You mean, this is a smorgasbord?! We can take whatever we want? We can have as much as we want?”
“Yes,” I said, “I would just ask that you remember your manners and that there are six of us at the table. If you choose not to have something, politely pass it on. If there’s something you really like, take some now, and there will be enough here for later.”
I proceeded to hold platters and bowls for my 4-year-old, standing behind him, and letting him scoop up the food he wanted.
That was 8 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
I changed my feeding course because my husband and I were starting to harp on the kids, who were wasting food (a trigger for both of us who grew up with “just enough”), and he was starting to eat up what was left on the plates—not good!
As a childhood nutrition expert, I had a vision for my kids’ nutrition future. After all, getting kids to eat today often fails to acknowledge tomorrow’s end goal: a grown-up who is internally motivated to eat a variety of nutritious foods, in the unique balance for his health.
So how do I do it?
I select and prepare a tasty meal that includes as many food groups as possible (lean protein, grains, vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, and dairy or nondairy substitute), and give consideration to my family’s preferences, including at least one or two food items I know will be acceptable. Don’t get me wrong; I’m the one in charge of the menu.
I allow my children to choose which foods they will eat, and how much. There’s no pressure from me to eat more of this or less of that. The kids are in control. Yes, some kids may go crazy at first—even I had one or two who ate a fair amount of bread—but once kids trust that they are free to choose from the presented meal, they settle down and eat to satisfy their appetite. I have found this takes about two to three weeks of consistent family-style meals.
I know changing how I served meals made the biggest difference in my kids’ eating and the vibe at our meal table. Everyone eats. It’s peaceful and enjoyable, mostly. Sometimes, someone complains, and I say, “I’m sorry you don’t like this. You don’t have to eat. But you do need to sit with us.” More often than not, something from the meal gets eaten.
Family-style feeding matches key tenants in child development and feeding research. For example, when children are allowed to make choices, they learn self-control, independence, and responsibility, which is the basis for self-esteem development.
Kids also learn about taste and their own food preferences, especially when they are exposed to new foods without pressure. Ironically, a no-pressure environment can lead to greater exploration of food and overall better eating, according to Lucy Cooke, a British researcher in kid’s food preferences.
Her research shows that exposure is the name of the game, because it familiarizes children with all sorts of food, a critical component to eating. Too much pressure is counterproductive, according to a 2006 study in Appetite, because kids may develop a dislike for foods they feel pressured to eat, especially vegetables. Even though it took years, my kids now eat lasagna instead of the fruit and bread it’s served with. In fact, they eat almost everything!
Learning to eat is just that—a process—not dissimilar to learning to read or drive a car. If parents make the decisions about food choices and amounts, when are the kids learning to eat? And how will they deal with the newfound freedom that comes when the parents aren’t there to police them? I think you know the answer to that.
Jill Castle is a registered dietitian and childhood nutrition expert. She is the co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. You can learn more about her here.