When kids are involved, meal time can often be an exhausting experience for parents. Finicky, restless and anxious little eaters can make it very difficult to focus on family togetherness. But fear not! You can create peaceful meal times if you’re prepared to change some ingrained family habits.
Katja Rowell, M.D., is a mom, a family practice physician, a behavioral childhood feeding specialist and founder of Family Feeding Dynamics. Her unique perspective on food and meal time will help you reevaluate your family’s experience around the table.
How are you feeding your kids?
As parents, we focus on providing healthy meals and snacks, but offering kids nutritious foods does not teach them about the experience of eating. “One of the most fundamental gifts we can give a child is to feel good about eating — to make the family table a place a child wants to be,” says Rowell. “When parents have feeding strategies that work and understand how to feed in a developmentally appropriate way without a power struggle, kids feel better about eating and do better over time.” When it comes to enjoying a peaceful meal, try focusing on how you feed your kids rather than what you feed them.
A healthy feeding relationship
You’ve probably heard about having a healthy relationship with food, but how is your relationship with feeding? You can toil in the kitchen creating nutritious masterpieces, but a healthy feeding relationship plays out in the interaction around the table. A meal should be an opportunity for a family to deepen relationships and relax, but it rarely works out that way. “I think one of the biggest problems is that parents want so desperately to do everything ‘right,'” says Rowell. “Unfortunately, the norm with feeding is so abnormal that we think we’re supposed to obsess about portions or food groups, that we are supposed to fight with our kids about veggies, or they’re supposed to only eat mac-n-cheese.”
The real crisis
Most of us are familiar with the problems of eating disorders and obesity, but according to Rowell, “we are really in a feeding crisis.” Kids feel pressure to be thin and parents feel pressure to provide proper nutrition, which creates tension around food that surfaces at meal time. “Studies show that most parents feel pressure with feeding,” says Rowell. “This makes it very hard for children to tune-in to their inborn cues of hunger and fullness. When those internal cues are overridden time and again, children are more likely to eat more or less than is healthy for them.”
Dr. Rowell offers the following feeding strategies to help create a peaceful meal:
- Follow the Division of Responsibility (pioneered by Ellyn Satter M.S., R.D.): Beyond infancy, the parent decides what, when and where a child eats. The child is expected to show up and eat as much or little as she wants from what is provided.
- Sit down meals and snacks every two to three hours for toddlers and preschoolers, and every three to four for older kids.
- Don’t cook special foods for your child. Always have something your child can eat on the table.
- Pair unfamiliar foods with accepted foods.
- Continue to serve the foods you want to eat.
- Eat with your children.