Happier healthy family meal times

Happier healthy family meal times

7th June 2019

I have worked in the area of child nutrition for nearly 25 years. In that time, I have supported families with children in the underweight and overweight categories, and many weights in between. The common theme to all of them is what many parents call 'fussy eating'. Personally, I have never liked this phrase, but when it is mentioned, everyone knows what you mean. So, I am going to keep using it for this blog.

If you recognise the term and would like some tips and hints on how to manage around meal times then please read on. My hope is that you will be able to make family meal times a happier, and therefore healthier, daily routine.

In this blog, I am talking about children with established solid food eating and not those at the weaning stage. I am also writing about the eating behaviours of healthy children. If your child has issues around eating and meals that are related to an underlying health condition, or they for example have ADHD or ASD then please seek support via your GP.

Here are a few points that are common to all situations.

  1. Everyone is allowed to dislike some foods, drinks and textures, So, one of the first things is to distinguish between what is a genuine dislike and what is not. Remember it can take around 10 to 12 tasting of a new food or flavour for any of us to acquire a liking for it and that food choices change and mature with age.
  2. Don't react to your child not eating or 'playing up' at meal times. As they say - 'keep calm'. No child is trying to 'wind up' their parent at meal times, but they soon learn that they get a reaction if they behave in a certain way. So, getting annoyed or giving them something else to eat reinforces their playing around or refusing food.
  3. You need to set the family meal rules and then, very importantly, you need to stick to them. Children actually respond very well and accept boundaries as long as they are consistently reinforced.

They won't eat what I give them

For a lot of parents this is the biggie. Do you recognise having to make different main meals for each member of your family? Or do you have a child who eats a food one day and then refuses the same food the next? If so, then hopefully these few rules will help you to start making changes.

Setting the meal time rules

The first thing I want to say here is - breathe. There can be a lot going on here, so it can seem too much to sort out, So, let's start with small things. If your child is old enough, sit down with them and agree a list of foods they like and don't like. The agreement is that you will not give them food from the don't like list - it is very important you keep to this rule. Their part of this bargain is that they will eat the foods on the like list when you give it to them.

Next, decide which meal you are all going to sit together for, sitting at a table is preferable, but if you don't have one then try to sit together with the telly off. Eating should be a sociable experience.

Meals should not last longer then 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, you should remove any food that was not eaten and you should not offer any other food or snacks until the next meal time. Even when you are told 'I'm hungry' - a drink is okay.

Keep to your rules. More often than not, children will push at these boundaries to see if you will keep to them. If they see you being serious by keeping to your new meal time rules they will settle into them. However, be warned that their behaviour usually gets worse, by trying to push at your new boundaries, before it gets better. Be reassured that experience of using meal time rules does show that their behaviour will get better.

Introducing new foods

Once you feel that the meal time rules have settled in, then it is time to start introducing new foods. I would always recommend only one new food a week, don't try and rush this all at once. It does take time. Keep to avoiding foods on the don't like list. Put a small amount - about a table spoonful - of a new food on their plate with the foods you know they will already eat. For some kids, it helps if it is the same colour or texture as the foods they already like to take.

Don't make a fuss about the new food. If they don't try it or push it away don't comment. If they try even a small bite, you should say 'well done for trying x food'. After 20 minutes, remove what has not been eaten and make no comment on what is left on the plate other than to say 'the next meal is at x time'.

The most important part of all this is not to make comments if they don't try the new food but give praise if they take even a small amount. And never take away an unfinished meal and then give them a favourite snack or say 'eat up your food here and then you can have your pudding/sweets'.

I hope you found this information helpful and that you are able to keep to these points. Remember that keeping to your new meal rules are very important and giving praise when new foods are tried helps to reinforce the behaviours you want to change.

I wish you all happy family meal times !

Dr Laura Stewart

June 2019


As well as being a experience dietitian Dr Laura is a trained practitioner in delivering the parenting programme Triple P- Positive Parenting Program.