Like in most families, mealtime at my house always seems to be a time of struggle. This child does not like what’s for dinner, and the next one does not feel like eating. Getting the family to sit down together is in itself a challenge. So once this is accomplished, and the 5 of us are sitting at the table, the negotiations begin…
My husband jokes that between my 3 children, they eat a beautifully balanced meal. One cannot get enough veggies. She will eat any vegetable in any form. Sure this is terrific. But try getting one piece of protein in her. Good luck. The next one only eats protein. Lots of it. She can eat a half of a chicken without batting an eyelash. And will ask for more. And she will get more only after we have negotiated that she eats some of her vegetables. The third is a grazer. She will eat just about anything. But only one or 2 forkfuls. And then say she is full. At least until dessert comes out. Then suddenly the appetite comes back.
So what are parents to do? How can we get each of our children to eat a balanced meal, so that they get the nutrients they need? And better still, how do we do this without each meal being a struggle or a negotiation?
Tips to Making Mealtime Fun & Healthy:
Tip #1 – Plan ahead by making a weekly dinner schedule. Kids love to give their input. Let each child choose what’s for dinner once per week. The trade off is that they would need to agree to eat whatever is on the table during the rest of the week.
Ensure that each meal is loaded with whole grains, vegetables, and a protein source. In between meals, in order to avoid crankiness and feelings of lethargy, make sure that healthy snacks are available such as high protein yogurts and cheese sticks.
Tip #2 - Do not allow your home to turn into a restaurant - Mealtime is family time, but it is NOT ok for you to be making two dinners. Children will then develop a sense of entitlement, believing that they have a right to ‘order’ what they want for dinner. The habit of making ONE meal needs to start early and become the family routine.
Tip #3 - Guide your children to eat healthy without micromanaging – If children are offered healthy food, and are eating healthy food, then they are headed in the right direction. As difficult as it might be, try not to comment too much on how much they are eating. Encourage without berating. We want our children to learn to make choices for themselves and for them to feel as if we have faith in the choices that they are making.
Tip #4 - Make eating fun - Creating beautiful colours with vegetables is a lot more appealing than one-color veggies. Teach children to participate in the fun by shopping with you, chopping salads, making patterns, and dipping into low fat dips such as Ranch dressing, hummus, or guacamole. By participating in the preparation, children will start eating healthier without even realizing it.
Tip #5 - Make snack time ‘real food’ time – My pediatrician always told me that snack time is a time to eat, not necessarily a time to eat snacks. In between meals, give your kids real food, which can sustain them. A hard-boiled egg, cheese and whole grain crackers, Greek yogurt, peanut butter on an apple. All these ‘snacks’ will sustain our children way longer and are much healthier than a bag of chips or a chocolate bar.
Tip #6 - Allow your children time to accept new foods - It might take three or four attempts, and in different forms, for our children to try new foods and learn to like them. None of my kids is a big fish eater. It took numerous attempts to find a recipe they would even try. Now my eldest loves any fish on the BBQ and my two younger ones will eat fish if it ‘looks like’ a fish stick. So, I make a homemade breading with flax seed and whole wheat bread crumbs. And I bake it. Tada! Homemade fish sticks, with all the nutrition our kids need. (And sometimes they think they are eating chicken fingers….shhh!)
Tip #7 - Keep the sweets to a minimum - There is nothing wrong with indulging our children with a little sweet. But limit what comes into the house. If it is in the pantry, we are all tempted to eat it. One cookie here, one cookie there. It adds up. Allowing treats once in a while is fine and should be regarded as a reward, not an entitlement. A trip to the ice cream store after dinner on a hot summer night, or allowing my kids to eat sugary cereals such as Fruit Loops (their favorite) while on vacation, is fine. On a daily basis, no thank you.
Tip #8 - Sweeten up fruits and veggies – Sometimes the only way for my children to eat fruits and veggies is if they feel they are sweet enough. We add a touch of brown sugar when roasting sweet potatoes or carrots. For dessert we drizzle (and I mean drizzle) a touch of chocolate syrup on our honeydew and strawberries. It is amazing how quickly those fruits will disappear when they have a drop of sweetness on them.
Most importantly, keep your children involved and as much as possible. Have them participate in meal preparation and take ownership for the food that they put in their mouths. Be encouraging and always praise. Let them know you trust their instincts when their body is telling them they are hungry or when they are full. And that you appreciate their effort to help and their effort to have a healthy body and a healthy mind.
I recently read an article in the Huffington Post entitled 8 Guaranteed Ways to Emotionally F&^%$$%^ up your Kids. And boy did it get me thinking about the difference between being supportive and overprotective.
The 8 points can be summarized as follows:
#1 - Ignoring your children and minimizing their feelings - This is pretty much summed up by teasing them or mocking them when they are unhappy, essentially telling them that their feelings are wrong. There is no better way to discourage our kids from opening up to us. And then we wonder why they do not feel safe talking to us as they get older.
#2 - Inconsistent rule-making and follow-through – It is impossible for children to please us when they never know what our expectations are. We essentially set them up for failure. Rules and boundaries need to be consistent. Consequences need to be expected and carried through when rules are broken. Even when given discipline or consequences, studies have shown that children actually function better and are more adaptable later in life when they are given clear boundaries as young children.
#3 - Making our child our friend – This is a big No-No. Our children are not to be our friends. It is our job to guide them and direct them, not be their buddies and do things with them they do with their peers. Our children need someone to look up to for advice. Our children should never know our worries and fears nor should we have any expectations of them to help us find solutions to our adult problems. This can ultimately create unnecessary worry and anxiety in our children.
#4 - Putting down/mocking their other parent – Children learn how to love and express love by what is being modeled for them. Children learn many forms of behavior by what is being modeled for them. Lack of affection toward a partner, or worse, berating a partner in front of the children, can too become a source of anxiety for children and contribute to one parent becoming unnecessarily alienated.
#5 - Punishing our children for growing up and becoming independent - We need to stop making our children feel guilty for reaching their normal developmental milestones. And for doing the normal age-appropriate testing of the rules and of our levels of patience. On the one hand we encourage our children to explore and try new things, but on the other we discourage them for fear that they will fail. As parents, we need to be able to take a deep breath and have faith that everything good that we have taught our children has resonated with them.
#6 - Treating your child as a reflection of you – Children need to be taught to live their lives for their own personal growth, not because we want them to represent us well. Our children are not responsible for our image, and should not be made to feel as such. Such children will grow up never feeling good enough, and always feeling like they are letting us down in some way.
#7 - Getting overly involved in our children’s relationships - Our children will only mature when they learn to manage their relationships on their own. Meddling too much in their interactions with their friends, their teachers and their siblings will not force them to manage these relationships on their own. These children will grow up being too dependent on others to solve their problems for them.
#8 - Being too overprotective – We all want to protect our children from any anticipated pain and disappointment but by doing so we are sheltering them too much. Children need to learn how to manage negative emotions. We are not always going to be able to micromanage them. Children need to learn how to stand on their own two feet, knowing that their own parents have the faith in them to be able to take care of themselves, learn to make their own decisions, etc.
I am sure we can all agree that as parents, we all do all of these things, at least some of the time. We are all a little bit, or a lot guilty. Does this mean that we are screwing up our kids and their futures right before our very eyes?
Where is this fine line, which divides being supportive to our kids, or the willingness to go to bat for them, without being too overprotective?
When I figure it out, I will let you know.
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