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.
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