Nowadays people are spending less time preparing food and less time eating together with loved ones in their family. Frequently, parents are eating at different times to their children, or mealtimes are rushed or eaten in front of a screen. It is not uncommon now to see whole families eating in silence together in restaurants as they all check their respective social media accounts. Traditionally, the family mealtime was sacrosanct – a precious time when everyone sat together, shared news and ate home cooked, healthy meals. While we may not want to go back fully to these traditional times, there is some wisdom to be preserved about the importance of family mealtimes. A central focus of the new Parents Plus Healthy Families Programme is to encourage family mealtimes as an important family ritual. Parents are encouraged to take time to prepare meals with their children and to sit down to eat together to chat and enjoy one another’s company.
Not surprisingly family mealtimes can have lots of benefits in terms of improved family relationships and providing a relaxed time for children and adults. Regular family mealtimes also make it more likely for parents and children to eat healthy foods and to maintain good diets through the week. Below are some ideas on establishing happy family mealtimes. To be successful you do have to carve out time for family meals. Rushing and the pressure to eat quickly all mitigate against mealtimes being relaxed and enjoyable. A good rule is to allow about 30 minutes for sitting down together (perhaps slightly shorter for toddlers) and to get your children into a habit of sitting with you for this time. It is also important for parents to sit down with their children to eat. Frequently, parents get into the habit of “serving” their children from the kitchen or eating at a different time. Try to sit and be present during mealtimes.
- Assign everyone a role
- Do let kids choose from what’s on the table
- Chunks of cheese or meat
- Check your child’s blood pressure, vision, and hearing using standard testing equipment
- Eating low-fat dairy products like yogurt, milk, and cheese
- Where can I get good ideas for healthy but simple foods
Use mealtimes as an opportunity to chat and connect with your children and your partner. Sharing news of the day, listening to stories and even playing after-dinner games are all important parts of the mealtime ritual. Certainly, it is best to be “technology and screen free” at mealtimes so conversation and connection is prioritised. In addition, avoid over pressurising children to eat during mealtimes. Meals often become dominated by parents trying to coax children to eat – “ just another spoon now” or “please finish your vegetables”. This can take the enjoyment out of eating and can even be counter-productive as a means to get children to eat healthy food. The best way to help children develop good eating habits is to simply put the desired food in front of them and giving them plenty of time to eat it during a relaxed family meal. As we discussed last week – the key to successfully changing a habit is to gradually introduce a change. If you currently have no regular family meals, try scheduling one at the weekends.
If you currently have meals in front of the TV, then make a rule of sitting at the table and switching technology off. If you have meals at different times to your children, try to have one or two when you can all sit down together. Even if you don’t have time to prepare a home cooked meal, start by making sure to sit down together as a family to eat a takeaway or ready meal together. Children are more likely to be motivated the more involved they are. Show children how they can help at mealtimes by setting the table or pouring the drinks or by cleaning or chopping vegetables when they are able to do this. As they get older you can teach them how to become more fully involved and even prepare a whole meal by themselves. Consider setting up a vegetable plot in the garden and getting the children to help with planting the seeds as well as harvesting and cooking the results.
Make the process of learning about food as fun and enjoyable as possible. Many parents find it challenging to introduce children to new healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables. Creating new habits around new healthy foods can indeed take time and patience. Understand why your child might not like a new food: Sometimes it’s the taste, other times it can be texture. If taste is an issue try mixing the new food with a familiar sauce, if your child does not like lumps, perhaps present the new food in a smoothie. Expect toddler resistance: Remember it is developmentally normal for toddlers in the second year to start refusing food, this is thought to be an evolutionary survival mechanism to stop them eating poisonous foods! Be realistic and patient: Many parents have unrealistic expectations for how wide a variety of foods their young children should eat. Many children have narrow diets, that widen as they get older.