How to have healthy and fun meal times with kids
Are meal times anxiety-inducing for you and in your household? Are you always concerned about how much the kids ate or didn't eat, and find it endlessly frustrating to "get them to eat enough" or "eat the right things?" Do they eat better at daycare/pre-school than at home?
I still remember being the kid in this scenario - my mother often chased me around the house with food, and meal times were fraught with negotiations and enticements. To this day, my mother worries I don't eat enough, even though she logically knows I am healthy and actually have quite a personal interest in nutrition.
I get it - my parents want the best for me. Growing up with a resource-poor childhood compounded their fear, shared by most parents, that their children are not getting enough and not growing optimally. As a pediatrician, I get this question multiple times per day.
Ironically, the very fear and concern in this scenario could be the very thing holding a child back from eating as much or as adventurously as they naturally might. And even if it doesn't, the very real anxiety around meal times can lead to unnecessary suffering for all.
So how do we approach this? What's the best way to maximize good nutrition and eating habits with children? What do we do with that instinctive fear?
Here is what I recommend:
1. Start with the growth curve
We pediatricians love the growth curve, because aggregated data lets us know if our concern is true or not. If there is a true nutritional deficit that impacts growth, the chart will show it. Out of each 100 parents who are concerned about eating, I see maybe 1-2 with a true growth problem, for which we go down a different path to investigate.
The math of the growth curve can make it a bit confusing - remember percentiles simply compare a data point to all the other kids of the same age. Being 50th percentile in weight means 50% of kids this age are heavier, and the other 50% are lighter. Unlike school, we are not trying to get >90th, but are simply making sure we track in each dimension in a reasonably consistent area of the curve over time.
Without going into too many specifics of the growth curve, you should always be able to ask your pediatrician for their interpretation, which should answer the first question of whether we are working with a true physical deficit.
2. Know everybody's roles, and stick to them
Perhaps the best advice I learned from pediatric nutritionists is to separate the roles between parents and children.
Your job, as the parent, is to serve meals that you believe are healthy.
The child's job, independent from you, is to decide what they eat or not eat.
Release yourself from the role of being the enforcer, counting every bite and cajoling the child to eat more. First, it simply doesn't work, just ask my mother! Secondly, this solicitation can backfire (see below).
Conversely, also don't let children dictate what you will serve to them. Out of fear that they won't eat, we might feel the pressure to acquiesce to their demands of a few choices, creating a negative cycle. Remember that in the end, a hungry child will eat rather than starve themselves. So if you stick to your job of serving the foods you want them to eat, that's the only choice they will have.
3. Go for a fun and relaxing time
Why do kids often eat better in daycare and pre-school? The pressure is off!
We humans are defiant creatures, and the feeling of being pressured naturally leads to resistance in us. Constant negotiations with food shifts the focus to bargaining instead of eating.
Instead, kids respond much better to a fun and relaxing environment at meal times. Many times when they protest they don't like something on their plate, if you stick to your role and lightheartedly say, "oh I see, you don't like _________. I will still put some on your plate and you don't have to eat it if you don't want to," or make a comment about how much you're enjoying your own food, chances are they will surprise you.
Kids need to approach meal times not as battles but as a fun time.
4. It's a marathon
Instead of micro-focusing on each meal as wins and losses, remember the goal is to create lifelong healthy eating habits. Think in long strokes of time and go for the average, which is also where looking at the growth chart over time can keep things in perspective.
5. Make it about together-time
Above anything else, children are wired for connection. In addition to fun and relaxing, cooking and meal times can be precious opportunities to bond and explore together. You and your child are not adversaries with opposing goals. You simply have two different roles, and you can expose them to endless traditions + flavors while leaving them with the choice to partake.
6. Other food-related tips
- For toddlers, always include 1-2 tried-and-true safe foods they like with each offering, and try to not introduce a new food more often than every 3 days.
- Don't freak out when they suddenly reject a previously safe food! Their tastes can be fickle.
- Make the plate more appetizing and less overwhelming with smaller portions instead of covering the whole plate.
- Toddlers below the age of 3 should have 50% of their daily calories come from healthy fats
- When it comes to grandparents and long term visitors who might have a different approach that disrupts the nutrition plan, feel empowered by remembering it's still your role to decide when and what foods are offered, and explain to them why this is important for your family.
Food is love, for self and others. Nutrition is an important part of my approach to health and well-being - my patients know I love to talk them for hours and hours about it! Every family is different and has to find their style in their own food culture. To that end, I wish you joy, health, and many culinary adventures!
Dr. Amy and the Kinder Team