Scenario: Tired after a long day at work, you pick up your child, head home and prepare the evening meal. You have no sooner joined each other at the table than you are greeted with a high-pitched whiny voice complaining “I don’t like that!” and the evening spirals downward from there. A very discouraging moment, indeed.
What’s a parent to do? You are concerned about your child’s health and providing nutritious food. You worry about potential harm from consuming highly processed foods, high amounts of sugar and sodium and chemicals that are added to foods. You do not want your child to become obsessed about weight and body image. So many things to think about!
As parent or primary caregiver you’re the one who will guide your child by providing opportunities to be involved with food selection and meal preparation. The process of observation, direct involvement and lack of negative commentary will encourage and enable your child to make healthy food choices throughout life.
Food options and availability
Make sure that healthy food options are available throughout the day: fresh fruits, raw and cooked vegetables, whole grain snacks and water. You might set up a special drawer in the refrigerator and/or a low drawer in a kitchen cabinet where some of these items are available. When your child sees you reach for a healthy snack, they are more apt to do the same. (Try to avoid having salty and sugary food on hand; if juice is a favorite beverage, you can dilute it with water to cut down on the sugar intake.)
Have a variety of fruits and vegetables available.
When you go food shopping, select a “new” or “different” produce item to take home. You and your child can explore and taste it together. Also, be sure to include items that you may not enjoy and try not to let that influence your child. Sometimes, your child may like the very fruit or vegetable that you dislike.
Don’t despair about the food that your child claims to dislike.
Continue to offer it periodically and encourage your child to taste it. It takes several times before a taste and/or texture becomes likable. And remember to include food items that you know your child will eat.
Be creative with food presentation.
Young children enjoy things that are presented in a fun way. For example, cut sandwiches into different shapes. Decorate pancakes with fruit to make a face. Tell them that “Today, we are going to eat ants!” and then have them spread peanut butter or cream cheese on carrot and celery sticks and top the “logs” with “ants” (raisins). They may or may not eat all the ingredients; they will certainly enjoy the process of making “ants on a log.”
With many recipes, you can “sneak” healthy ingredients into what you are making. Shredded or grated apples, zucchini, carrots or bananas can be added to breads or muffins and meatloaf or meatballs. Your child will get the benefit of vitamins, minerals, and fiber – all necessary for growth and development.
If you are still concerned about what your child is or is not eating and if he or she is getting the proper vitamins and minerals, consult with your pediatrician. The doctor may advise a multivitamin.
How to have a calm mealtime:
At the end of a workday and school day, it is important and meaningful to have a calm, enjoyable mealtime with your family. Ideally, this is a time when the family comes together and shares things about their day, recognizes and appreciates each other for something said or done and has food to bring you all together.
There are a number of things that the parent/primary caregiver can do to make sure that this comes together (you might even have a “family meeting” on a weekend day to talk about and make plans around the evening meal).
Make sure that there is consistency in your routine.
When you arrive home from work or school, each person should know what they are expected to do before the meal is ready. Maybe there is a specific chore to be done (e.g., setting the table for dinner), a quiet game that children can play, books they can read or homework that can be worked on.
Involve your children in menu planning.
Which can be done at a weekend family meeting. Perhaps you found a new recipe that you would like to try. Or your child learned about a fruit or vegetable and is curious about it. Maybe the family tasted something yummy at Grandma’s and would like to have it at home. When children are involved in the process of meal planning, often they are more interested in eating what they have talked about.
When you go to the supermarket, invite your child to go with you. Explain in advance what you will be looking for and that you would particularly like his or her input in the produce section. You can tell your child what you won’t be looking at as well (e.g., sodas and salty or sugary foods).
Children enjoy cooking!
With assistance, your child can measure and mix ingredients together, tear lettuce to make a salad or spread butter to make garlic bread. At a certain point, you can teach your child how to use a knife to cut softer fruits and vegetables. Again, when children are involved in the process, they are more willing to taste what is offered at the meal.
Active children tend to be hungry children.
It is hoped that if your child is in a school or day care program, they have opportunities throughout the day to be physically active. Physical activity combined with healthy foods contribute to good muscle, bone and brain development and endurance and overall good health.
Some families have dessert as a regular part of a meal. Sometimes it is used as a bargaining chip to get a child to eat the main part of the meal (which can lead to meltdowns and stress at the dinner table). Dessert does not have to be a part of every meal. In fact, some families have a designated “dessert night” once a week. In doing this, the dessert is part of the meal and is for everyone. It is a special treat that the whole family can enjoy.
The important idea about mealtime is that it is an opportunity for the family to enjoy the time and the food together. Like many things in our lives, mealtime is a process that takes time. Enjoy the process and what your children bring to it. Working and learning together brings you closer so that you can share fun and caring times together.
This article appears in the July 2022 issue of Washington Parent magazine.