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Make Family Mealtime More Pleasant

Instill Healthy Habits in Your Kids

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian

As a parent, your days are probably pretty stressful. You get the older kids off to school, run errands, keep the household running smoothly, and maintain your career. At the end of a hard day, you just want to relax and spend some quality time with your family.

But if you’re like most busy parents, relaxation time is nothing more than wishful thinking. As the house fills up again at night, there’s noise, tantrums, and disorganization, which seem to last until everyone falls asleep.

Mealtime, whether it’s breakfast together or a family dinner, doesn’t have to be as stressful as the rest of your day. Here are some tips to handle picky eaters, set an example of healthy eating (which children learn from their parents), and make your meals together a more positive experience:

  • Try to serve food in a comfortable, relaxed, and unhurried atmosphere.
  • Encourage a child’s participation in meal preparation (measuring, stirring, decoration, cutting and arranging)
  • Food should be warm or cool, (not hot or cold); a child’s mouth is more sensitive than an adult’s
  • Flavors should be mild, not spicy; a child has more taste buds than an adult
  • If the child is able, give her a small, mini-shopping list to look for a few items on the lower shelves. Make sure the foods are nutritious and easy to handle.
  • If you want to avoid waste, serve smaller portions. Don’t encourage overeating or fussy eaters by forcing a child to eat everything on the plate.
  • Let your child learn to feed her or himself. Be patient. To ease the mess, put newspaper under the chair and have a towel ready to wipe up spills.
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  • Serve food with child-sized plates and cups.
  • If possible, plan rest or quiet time before meals. A tired or overly excited child may be less hungry at mealtimes.
  • When introducing a new food, try serving it during the same meal as a favorite food.
  • Make pre-meal hand washing a pleasant event. Allow time for the child to enjoy the splash of soap and water. A quick, forced washing, particularly after the food is served, may make a child too upset to eat well at the meal.
  • Set a good example. If other people at the table enjoy a variety of foods, your child will learn by copying what you do.
  • If your child appears to have lost interest in the meal, or to dawdle, give him/her a reasonable time to eat (20-30 minutes) then quietly but firmly remove the food. Most children will eat when they are hungry. Do not force the issue.
  • Likes and dislikes may appear suddenly. Be casual about these new food notions. If no one pays special attention to these quirks, they will soon be outgrown.
  • Do not coax, play games, or force your child to eat. You are not teaching good food habits. Make a wide variety of nutritious foods available to your child, and then let your child decide what to eat.
  • Small children prefer to eat with their fingers. Give them small sandwiches, raw veggies, meat cut into bite sizes, fruits and cheese cut into small pieces, and crackers spread with peanut butter or cottage cheese.
  • Be casual about desserts, and make them a part of the total meal plan when they are served. Placing special attention on desserts, or using them as rewards only makes them more desirable than other foods.
  • Let your child be the judge about how much to eat. Appetite may vary from one meal to another, and from day to day. Never make an issue of food acceptance. You provide the nutritious choices…then let the child choose among them.
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