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:

  1. The chef decides what will be part of the meal.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. When everyone is done eating, diners take their plates to the sink. Older kids help wash the dishes.
  6. 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.

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9 Comments on “Food Fights Fixed: How to have a successful family meal”

  1. Holly M Says:

    Can you provide some thoughts on how to manage the family meal when both parents are working outside the home, and bedtime comes too early to prepare a meal, eat, have bathtime and bedtime routine? We end up with one parent feeding the kids around 5:30, before the other parent gets home, then eating later after the kids are asleep. We do eat as a family on the weekends, but is that enough to get the benefits you describe?


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    I don’t think weekend-only family meals will be as influential as family meals that are more frequent, but you can only do what you can do. Perhaps some creative solutions can work: can dad plan to leave early Tues and Thurs, and work from home to catch up once the kids are in bed? Or can you have “family breakfasts” on some days? How about lunches– is it possible for dad to take a long lunch once a week, and work late that day? Most studies that have looked at the “family meal” “effect stratify families who have 5 or more family meals a week as the most frequent, with the most benefit. But if you can only do three, that’s better than nothing. Don’t get discouraged, but continue to think of ways to work more family meals in as your children get older and perhaps work schedules get more flexible.


  3. Paula Hilinski Says:

    With a busy toddler that practically flys around the house on little wings I found it difficult to engage my daughter at meal times. I was doing most everything that Dr. Roy cautions against, preparing a plate for her, bribing her with her favorite foods, etc. Needless to say I was developing a picky eater without meaning to. After having a great conversation pertaining to meal time w/ Dr. Roy at our last well check-up, reading the article and applying his recommended stategies we’re on our way to developing better eating habits as a family. The serving plate suggestion has really worked well! Now my daughter will point to certain things she wants and eats
    more with less distraction as we all sit around the table.


  4. Gretchen Says:

    As a follow up, what should we do with a child who won’t eat any fruits or veggies? I do the platter suggestion most times, but my 2 1/2 year old will pick around all veggies and fruits. The only fruit I can get her to eat is applesauce. I’ve even tried to make her smoothies and she refuses. Should I leave her alone about this and hope it is just a phase?


  5. Dr. Roy Says:

    Many kids don’t eat fruits or veggies; many adults don’t, either. Give your child a daily multivitamin (inexpensive, generic ones are fine; avoid any product sold as part of a multilevel marketing scheme.) Continue to offer these as part of meals and set a good example by eating them yourself. And that’s all you can or should do. You can’t make a child eat something. Anything you might do to bribe or reward or punish to compel more veggie consumption is in in the long going to make it much less likely that veggies will ever be eaten when your child grows up.


  6. Matt Says:

    We are guilty of many of the things we are not suppose to do. Because of this, we are not only faced with a picky four year old, but now our two year old son has developed his brother’s bad habits. The four year old refuses to eat nothing but oatmeal with yogurt for dinner – every night. We are anxious to turn a new leaf and try these suggestions, but I have to ask one question: If the child refuses to eat anything that is served on the table, do we let them go hungry for the night? I am sure we will have two very unhappy children initially. How do you handle the situation?


  7. Dr. Roy Says:

    Matt, if you’d like to fix the picky eating, you need to follow the plan. You’re right, you will have unhappy children in the short run. But if you allow yourself to use your child’s happiness as the main guide for parenting, you’re going to have much bigger problems than a couple of picky eaters.

    My plan doesn’t mean that the kids can’t have oatmeal or yogurt for dinner, by the way. You can include one or both of these items as choices on the table when dinner begins. What you should never do is go and make something different from what’s already been served after the meals begin. You decide, in advance, what items are in the meal. The kids decide how much of each item to eat.

    Oatmeal can be a very healthful– but only if you cook real oatmeal (often called “steel cut oatmeal”.) Instant oatmeal is processed and doesn’t count as a whole grain food.


  8. Michele Says:

    We follow most of your rules, although we’ll now start the platter rule and the no talking about food rule to help our 3 yo eat dinner better. But if we don’t push him to eat, at bedtime he’s “HUUUNGRY!” He’s been eating oatmeal before bed for probably 2 years, but he’s not allowed to have it unless he finishes dinner. So my question is, if he decides not to eat and he hungry before bed, do we let him eat oatmeal or do we tell him he has to eat at dinner and can’t eat after? Btw – he eats pretty much everything we give him, but he’s too “busy” to eat. So he’ll sit and often have a toy at dinner or he gets up constantly. And we have time outs until he’s ready to eat. But he’s got everything on his mind except food.


  9. Dr. Roy Says:

    Michele, I suggest you just say that he can have a snack before bed if he’d like. Oatmeal is great, especially if it’s steel cut!


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