Food Fights Fixed: How to have a successful family meal
Eating together as a family has tremendous health benefits. Kids who regularly eat with their families do better in school, watch less television, and are less likely to struggle with obesity. They also tend to get more exercise and eat a more healthful diet, including more vegetables and fewer processed foods.
But a healthy, relaxing family meal may not come easily. Parents say the kids just won’t eat what they’re served, and get whiney and surly. Mom inevitably heads back to the kitchen to make something separate for every child, and the nice relaxing family meal becomes a frustrating experience that no one enjoys. Needless to say, those vegetables sit untouched on their plates.
Though it may take time to create new habits, any family can enjoy a great family meal by following these simple rules:
- The chef decides what will be part of the meal.
- The chef, with any interested kids helping, prepares each item. Everything that’s part of the meal is put on separate serving platters on the table. Food is not put on individual plates.
- Everyone sits down to eat together, and everyone can have as much or as little of every item in the meal as they like. Serving platters are passed around so everyone can serve themselves (younger kids might need a little help with this, but still ought to hold the serving spoon themselves.)
- Conversation is encouraged about any subject other than the food itself. In fact, the only food-related comments that are allowed are compliments to the chef and helpers. Observations about how much or how little any one is eating are forbidden. Comments like “What a good eater!” and “Why don’t you try the braised trake, you liked it last time?” are not allowed.
- When everyone is done eating, diners take their plates to the sink. Older kids help wash the dishes.
- The television stays off during mealtimes.
The use of serving platters for food is essential. These don’t have to be fancy—feel free to use the pot that the spaghetti was cooked in, to save some washing up. Using serving platters allows each person to choose what and how much to eat on their own. It reinforces the crucially important outlook on food that all healthy eaters develop: “When I’m hungry, I’ll eat. When I’m not hungry, I won’t eat.” This simple principle should be encouraged and reinforced, not subverted and second-guessed by loading up a child’s plate on your own.
You may say, “Well, that’s fine, but I know he only eats chicken nuggets.” There’s nothing particularly evil about chicken nuggets themselves, but what causes problems for families is the process of getting up to prepare them after the meal is served. It tells the child, “OK, if you don’t eat this, I’ll make you something different that I know you’ll like.” By doing that, you’re unintentionally making the chicken nuggets even more special, and teaching your child to always reject the first thing that’s offered. Kids love to make their parents do their special bidding, and mealtime is not a good time to indulge these wishes. It leads to bad eating habits for the kids, and ruins meals for the adults.
If your child always eats nuggets, you may include those as part of every meal (see rule # 1, above.) But they ought to be on a serving plate from the beginning of the meal, for anyone to share. Do not, ever, get up in the middle of a meal to make something different for anyone.
What about dessert? You may have been temped to weigh one food against another, by saying “You can get your brownie for dessert only if you eat your broccoli.” This is not a good idea. It makes the brownie extra-special, and denigrates the broccoli. After all, with this sort of a rule in place, who would ever consider eating broccoli without a reward afterward? Kids who are bribed or rewarded for eating certain foods are very unlikely to continue to eat those foods when they’re older. If you wish to include dessert as part of a meal, put it on the table at the beginning of the meal, and do not apply any special rules to it. Anyone can help themselves to dessert at any time (you can make a “Leave some for the rest of us” rule of you need to.) Traditional desserts are fine, though you should consider trying things like fresh fruit with whipped cream sometimes, too.
In the United States, our nutritional problem isn’t a lack of vitamins or vegetables. It’s not that our kids aren’t getting enough to eat. The huge, deadly problem is obesity: too much food, too many calories, and too much processed junk. Family meals shared together allow children to learn to regulate their intake on their own. It’s an opportunity to teach table manners and conversational skills, and a time for families to learn about what’s going on in each other’s lives. Mealtime doesn’t need to be a time for nagging about food and eating. Try these rules, and in a few weeks mealtime frustrations and disappointment will be replaced by a great experience for the whole family. And your kids will start to develop healthy eating habits to last their lifetimes.