Once your kids begin solid foods the real challenge fun begins! It’s always a feat when you can feed your family healthy, filling foods, at a planned time, in relative peace. Right away I want to relieve families from the pressure of perfection – Rome wasn’t built in a day! Proper family meals with children take a lot of organization and planning, but eventually they become beautiful traditions, and even second nature.
Family mealtimes are more than just essential to healthy bodies; they’re essential to healthy emotional and even academic development! One study found that students who lack family mealtimes also have the lowest performance at school. So before we dive into the How of family mealtimes, first let’s commit to having them regularly. This is something I feel quite strongly about, even if it means the kids are involved in fewer extracurricular activities. If parents are working late hours, get creative! Maybe your family mealtime is breakfast or lunch? In our case, my husband works many evenings, but is able to work from home a lot of the time, so our whole family sits down to family lunch (with our kindergartener coming home from school for lunch) a few days a week, when dinners aren’t possible. It’s not mandatory that your family mealtime is dinner; as long as your family is taking the time to be distraction free and together.When to Start?
As soon as baby transitions to solid foods, you can begin laying the groundwork and build towards established family meals. Babies tend to eat at odd hours and more frequently than an adult’s usual three meals per day, so it’s not necessary that the whole family joins him for every one of his veggie purées, but at least for one meal I suggest sitting down with baby at the table and eating alongside him.
I’m passionate about food, so naturally I want to instill a love for diverse foods in my kids as well. But even if you’re not too excited about what’s for dinner, consider that your kids are watching and learning from you, including your attitudes and tastes for foods. This stage of life can be really eye opening to our own bad habits. If we as parents aren’t making the healthiest food choices, our kids aren’t likely to either.
Keep in mind that kids need a large variety of foods at mealtime to cover the requirements of Canada’s Food Guide. Grains and dairy seem to be the easiest to serve kids (my kids would live off of cheese and pasta if I let them!) but fruits, vegetables, and protein seem to be harder. Children under age eight need one protein serving per day (the equivalent of two eggs, or ½ cup of meat) and 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables (each serving being ½ cup). If your meals are falling short of these standards, smoothies are a great way to pack in the nutrients! One smoothie can easily knock off 2 servings of fruit and even the serving of protein if you add tofu or peanut butter. I like to think of smoothies as an invisibility cloak for healthy food!The Setting
It’s easy for mealtimes to become hectic, so I suggest making the table a bit of a sanctuary at mealtimes. During the day we use our table for colouring, Play-Doh, and crafts, but half an hour before mealtimes I have my kids clear it off and set the table. This helps draw the boundary from play time to mealtime and also gets them involved in the process! The table should be clear from any activities or electronic devices, and definitely no TV. I serve my kid’s meals on the same basic white plates that we use, though the smaller size. Keeping things simple and uniform helps kids to calm down and mimic their parents, in eating habits and manners. I take a page from the Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy and light a candle at mealtimes to help children focus on the meal and the table. Then, let the child who behaved the best during mealtime blow out the candle. This is strangely motivating for little ones and really works!
Developing Their Palette
As a rule, I have my children try everything that we adults eat, whether it’s sushi, roasted eggplant, lamb chops, salads; spicy, tangy, sweet, savoury. It’s good for their palette to be introduced to as many different tastes and textures as possible at a young age when they’re more adventurous. When a family is eating together and everyone has the same things on their plate, kids are more open to trying new foods.On “Not Liking” Foods
Like adults, kids will have certain foods they just don’t like, but be careful how quickly you allow them to make that pronouncement. I don’t accept my kids “not liking” a certain food until they’ve tried it upwards of 15 times, and in different scenarios. They may not like plain avocado, but have they tried guacamole? They may not like cooked peppers, but do they like them raw? If your child tries a food and says they don’t like it, stay positive in your response: “Oh you didn’t like it this time? We’ll try again another day, a different way, and you might change your mind. Thanks for trying it today!” Eventually, you’ll know if your child truly has distaste for a food or if they’re just being picky.
Tricks Up My Sleeve
With all of this advice, would you guess that my kids still give me a hard time at mealtimes? Well, they do! Getting my three little ones to eat still requires some tricks up my sleeve. Namely, don’t let them snack and offer the least desirable food first. It’s not rocket science, but I so often forget – a hungry kid will eat anything. I try to be vigilant about not snacking throughout the day, and when I do offer a snack, making sure it won’t spoil the next meal. Now that our kids are 2, 4, and 5, they eat four times a day: 8am breakfast, 12pm lunch, 3pm snack, and 5pm dinner. The 3pm snack is always fruit or raw nuts, so they’re getting necessary nutrients, but not filling up. Then, at dinnertime, offer the food your child struggles with first when she’s the most hungry.
Here’s to mealtime! And healthy, nourished families. Bon Appétit!
Emily is a Montreal-based writer and blogger, but most importantly, a mom of three littles (age five and under). She geeks out over cloth diapers, lattes, and will do just about anything to travel. You can find her on Instagram @emmorrice where she profusely overgrams pictures of her meals, kids and city.