Sitting down together as a family at the end of the day and enjoying a meal together can be one of the best things you can do to strengthen your family unit. But with our ever-increasing busy schedules this is no longer the reality for most modern day families.
Did you know that sharing family meals can be one of the most effective ways to combat picky eating in kids?
When the whole family eats together children are constantly being exposed to new foods and whether they choose to eat them or not, those constant exposures help to normalise those foods and increase the likelihood of kids trying (and accepting them) one day.
Family meals also provide an opportunity for kids to watch how older family members eat and behave at the dinner table and can set a precedent for developing appropriate table manners and feeding techniques.
The conversational benefits surrounding family meals are positive and can be a nice way to share stories about your day and un-wind with each other. Studies have shown that sharing positive dinner conversations as a family when children are young leads to older children and teenagers that feel more connected to their family and are less likely to engage in dangerous behaviour as they get older.
It can be a juggle trying to plan and execute family meals when you have to work around job schedules, early bedtimes and out-of-home commitments but I’m sharing 7 of my favourite tips for enjoyable family meals when you have young kids.
1. Choose a time that works best for your family
Choosing a time for family meals when you have young kids can be tricky. You want to make sure that you child isn’t too tired when they sit for their meal because we all know a tired child can be a cranky child and they’ll be less likely to eat what is being served. If your child is under 2, aim for between 5 and 5.30. For toddlers over 2, preschoolers and early primary school aim for 5.30-6. For older kids you can move things to between 6-7.
If eating dinner this early doesn’t always work with your schedule, aim for at least one night when you can achieve this and eat together as a family and add more nights as your child gets older or your schedule changes. Prepping parts of your dinner earlier in the day or week, trying out a slow cooker meal or batch cooking and using meals from the freezer can help cut down on time in the kitchen on family meal days, meaning dinner can get to the table a little quicker than usual.
2. Start off with meals you know your kids love
There are plenty of popular kid-friendly meals that are suitable for the whole family. Sharing a meal with the family that your child already enjoys can reduce the stress of family meals when you’re just getting started.
Some of our favourites include:
- ‘Make your own’ Taco Bar
- ‘Make your own’ Hot Dog Bar
- Spaghetti Bolognese (or Meatballs)
- Fish, Chips & Salad
- Build your own Burger
- Homemade Pizza
All these meals provide plenty of opportunity for adding in sides focused on different vegetables and fruit to increase intake and exposure.
3. Include one or two items on the table that you know your child will eat
This one is important for two reasons. Firstly if your child sees food that they like and enjoy eating when they arrive at the table they’ll feel relaxed and comfortable sitting down to eat. When they see something familiar as opposed to a bunch of new foods they haven’t tried before and aren’t sure that they’ll like. If they come to the table relaxed then there’s more chance of them trying a new food once they see other family members enjoying it (trying new foods might not happen straight away – be patient – and don’t pressure them).
Secondly you want these foods there so that there’s something your child will eat and can fill up on if they choose not to try the new foods. This saves you having to get up and short order cook if your child refuses dinner (which I never recommend you do). Examples might be serving up some garlic bread and deconstructed chopped salad on italian nights, or naan/roti bread on curry nights, or baby vegetarian spring rolls on asian nights. I usually also add in a bowl of roast potato or sweet potato, corn on the cob or a plate of chopped fruit on nights I introduce a new meal to my family. This way my kids have other nutritious options to fill up on if they don’t prefer the new meal on their first exposure.
4. Choose developmentally appropriate foods
If you have young children, particularly under the age of 2, choose foods to add to the table that are developmentally appropriate for your child. Steer clear of spicy foods, meats that are tough and chewy or have small bones. Deconstruct meals as much as possible so that your child has a chance to familiarise themselves with the different tastes and textures of food. Always have plenty of steamed or roasted vegetables and chopped up fruit for them to eat.
5. Serve meals ‘family style’
‘Family style’ refers to placing all the elements of a meal in dishes in the centre of the table and allowing everyone to serve themselves (children under 3 may need assistance). This gives children greater control over what they choose to eat and how much of it they eat. Kids have a wonderful capability to regulate their own intake when it comes to food and it’s important to encourage them to tune into this when they’re young. Serving up their own food also helps to develop their fine motor skills and learn manners.
6. Incorporate something for everyone into your meal plan
When choosing meals make sure to keep the whole family in mind. Choose some meals that you know your kids absolutely adore and then choose meals that perhaps the adults prefer (but are still family-friendly). This ensures that everyone still gets to look forward to their favourite meals and kids also learn about the importance of taking turns and including everybody’s preferences.
7. Keep the conversation light and don’t focus on the food
Spend time talking about everyone’s day, any fun activities or funny stories. Don’t focus your talk around the food, answer any questions your child may have about the meal or the food but don’t pressure them into trying anything. If the conversation is directed towards other positive topics, your child will most likely be feeling relaxed and perhaps a little more confident in trying new foods.
Even just starting off including one family meal each week into your routine can help to make positive changes to your child’s eating habits and create less stress around mealtimes. Each step you take will
work towards creating a healthy and balanced relationship with food for your whole family.
Chelsea Brown is a mum of two and a university qualified nutritionist. She works with families to help improve their health and shares practical advice to help take the stress out of mealtimes. She is passionate about a balanced approach to nutrition and developing a healthy relationship with food. Follow her over on Facebook and Instagram for more helpful tips and advice.