I have a 6 Year old boy named Liam. He’s a normal boy; cute, loud, messy, hyperactive and generally a lovable handful. Except at the dinner table. At the dinner table he is an angel. It’s the one thing I think I have got mostly right in this whole challenging thing called parenthood. Liam doesn’t beg for MD, doesn’t nag for chocolate, won’t throw a tantrum at the supermarket for some unhealthy gimmicky food and I wouldn’t hesitate to take him to the flashiest restaurants in town for dinner. In fact I do. Regularly. And without fail he is complemented on his manners and behaviour.
Its not luck, nor is it some magic sellable theory I can write a book on. Its consistent hard work that is a combination of rules, exposure, reminders, complements, fun and education. Since the very first food he tasted I have aimed to ensure much of what he eats is home made, home grown, fresh, low in salt, not fried and is generally made with love. Please don’t roll your eyes and stop reading because this sounds all too hard. Its not. I’m a consummate juggler and have always tried to balance study, work, socialising and parenthood to the point I start to drop the balls. Everyone has to compromise somewhere. Its where you decide you can compromise that makes all the difference.
Here is a list of simple rules I use to make food less a battle, more a pleasure.
1. Processed food is kept to a minimum. Research shows children with increased “junk food” intake between 0-4 have stunted IQ’s If you are caught short – a bottle of baby or toddler food, some fresh or dried fruit is infinitely better than some hot chips.
2. Food is NEVER a reward. Using food as a reward builds emotional connections with eating which are linked to eating disorders. By promising chocolate or a happy meal to a child for good behaviour, you raise the perceived importance of that food.
3. Never purchasefood which has “fun” built in. I never buy McDonalds, yoghurt with cartoons on it or any other marketing ploy. Children are 9-10 before they understand that advertising is just that, and not a command to buy it. In fact most children under 8 cannot tell the difference between advertising and normal TV programming. Its never to late to start explaining what this is all about. I always say that the packaging is important because the label on the back tells me how good it is. Never assume your child is too young to understand the reasons behind your purchasing decisions.
4. Shopping is an important part of food. Taking them with you gives you the opportunity to talk about what you buy and why. Keep them occupied with talking about what you are buying so there isn’t time for them to go looking for things you should avoid purchasing. If they do ask, explain why you are not buying that item and choose two healthier items which are similar and allow them to select one.
5. Use markets and fruit and vegetable departments to name and talk about food items. Talk about why you like them and what you are going to cook with them. Talk about where they come from. I also use this time to instill some of my food morals such as why I buy free range eggs, or why I buy local.
6. Get the kids to help select recipes to use, make dinner suggestions and help with basic cooking. Kids are more likely to eat food they have helped prepare. Growing your own food is even better for their feelings of contribution. Even if you can only grow some herbs in a pot – it all helps.
7. Variety Variety variety. Children need to taste things many times before they accept that it is ok to eat. Just ask them to try it and don’t push if they don’t like it. Just try again next time and explain that taste buds grow too so it might be different now. For older children and adults it can take up to 20 times! Variety early on is the best way to prevent fussy eating later. As long as the food is not a health threat for young children, EVERYTHING is OK to taste including curries, stir-fries, seafood and a bit of your meal at a restaurant.
8.Table manners. Every meal should be served at the table, TV off, toys away where the family sits down. Even if its just a sandwich after a busy day. Cutlery should be used properly and proper manners should be observed such as waiting to start eating until everyone is ready, using please and thank you and commenting about how nice the meal was (especially if you had little helpers!) Don’t tell them off if things don’t go well – just remind how to do it properly, and demonstrate good manners yourself. Children should sit at the table until everyone is finished eating and should ask to leave when the meal is finished. I often wont give provide sauces or a drink with dinner to encourage asking – This presents an opportunity to practice.
9. Dining out. I know not everyone can take their children out regularly but if you can – do it. Dining etiquette is an important skill needed as an adult and one that is often neglected. When we go out there are no toys – although I did allow a colouring or picture book when he was much younger. I never order from the kids menu, the food is nearly without fail boring and unhealthy. I usually order and entree size meal and a serve of vegetables. Also many restaurants will bring kids meals out early – I don’t encourage this as eating together is important and this way they won’t be bored and distracting by the time your food comes out. Be willing to order different things and risk they won’t eat it – you can always swap some of your food with them – just remember not to be cross! I often read the menu to Liam and allow him to pick – with a little guidance of course! They are much more likely to eat something they picked out.
10. Praise them. When they do a good job with manners and bahaviour at the table either home or out – make sure you tell them. Positive reinforcement is essential.
11. Vegetables are always a drama. Easiest thing to do it put a good variety on your child’s plate and ask they at least have 1 mouthful of everything. If they don’t like it they don’t have to eat. Don’t put too much other food on their plate as they will probably leave the vegetables until last – and you don’t want to encourage them to over eat. Don’t use dessert as an encouragement to eat all their food as that is another bad psychological habit to build into them. Best thing is to say that you are not sure if you are having dessert – you want to wait until dinner settles which will encourage them to eat until they are full. If dessert is healthy and served later there is no harm done. Do not withhold dessert as a punishment as this again puts meaning on food.
12. Put a positive face on everything. Never say to or in front of your child, “that is yuck” or “I don’t like that.” Don’t pull faces or act like vegetables are a chore. They model their bahaviour on your – even if it doesn’t feel like it now! Having the other parent or a grandparent say “they wont eat THAT” is nearly always a self fulfilling prophesy.
If you want personalised advice on improving your family’s mealtimes you can inquire about a private consult
Mel Haynes is an experienced chef and a qualified nutritionist. Her blog can be viewed at www.melhaynes.com.au