Written by: Cally Worden
Mealtimes with young kids can feel as tense as climate change negotiations at the UN. Children have so many aspects of their lives controlled by grown-ups, it’s no surprise that the relative freedom of feeding time brings with it a degree of rebellion. If your child would happily live on a diet of pasta and cheese or one devoid of all things green, then it’s time to act. Winning this war is vital if we are to ensure that our children grow up on a balanced and healthy diet, with a taste for a variety of foods. Here are some tips on how to win without them even realising it.
Win the War, not every Battle
If you approach each meal with a battle mentality, then resistance is what you can expect. Keeping mealtimes calm and positive will help your child view the dinner table as a fun and safe place to be, instead of one where he has to defend his corner. Rules and guidelines are essential, but enforcing them to the letter all the way through every meal is not the way to go. Choose only one battle each meal and be prepared to let other things slide. For the time being. Little by little, your campaign for a balanced diet will progress.
Give your Child Room to Eat
In our house we have a simple rule at mealtimes. You can choose to eat what’s on your plate or not, but unless a reasonable portion of everything on offer (veg and any other ‘out-of-favour’ food of the moment included) is consumed, we don’t progress to dessert. If they’re not ‘hungry’ for the main course, then they certainly don’t need a sweet treat. Some may see this as a bribe, and they may in part be right. But I’ve seen my son pick dolefully at a chicken dinner until I’ve taken pity on him, and then had to watch feeling like an idiot, as he wolfed down a yoghurt and banana. He’s hungry, he just finds the savoury stuff less interesting. So now we have our rule, and most days it works because the kids feel in control and under pressure from no-one but themselves.
Be Sure your Kids are Hungry
Long drinks and filling snacks in between meals can kill a child’s appetite, so avoid them and seek to achieve a balance of in-between munching that works for your child. Each youngster has different hunger requirements. Some kids seem to exist on bird-like portions, while others can consume enough to feed their entire class. And all kids experience variations in their appetite each day, just like adults. With all this in mind, it’s vital not to over-face your child at mealtimes. You won’t always get it right, but you know your child’s appetite better than anyone, so go with your gut feeling when dishing up and be prepared to be flexible if it’s obvious your child simply isn’t needing the food you have served.
Create a Mealtime Routine
Mealtimes are about more than just shovelling food into your body. They represent an opportunity for the family to engage in a fun, relaxed activity together. Whenever possible try to¬† have a family meal, which will help to show your children that eating is a social event to be enjoyed, instead of just a functional one to nourish the body. The family bond that is created around the table also generates a greater sense of unity and security within the family unit, keeping the general home vibe at a happy level.
Personally I’m not a fan of this as a tactic – I’m all for creating choice for my kids, but I simply don’t have the time to pander to different dietary preferences at every meal. I tailor our diet to include foods we all like and introduce new meals regularly to keep a degree of variety. It’s not difficult over time to become attuned the difference between a genuine dislike of a food expressed by your child, and a trying-it-on rejection. My kids are encouraged to try new foods all the time. And I keep trying ones they say they don’t like because sooner or later they get a taste for them.
Encourage Food Combinations
It’s often the case that the flavour of a single food can be enhanced through its combination with others. Carrots and broccoli are a prime example of this; the sweetness of the carrot dulling the bitter overtone of the broccoli nicely. Blended sauces are a great way to introduce this idea – my kids were astounded to discover they’d eaten, to their horror, spinach in one particular pasta sauce I whipped up last week. They loved it. You could see the taste neurons connecting, grudgingly, in their brains.
Use Reverse Psychology
Telling children they can’t have something is often like a red rag to a bull. Introducing ‘adult only foods’ to mealtimes and devouring them with all the grown-up relish you can muster is a sure-fire way to pique the interest of the kids. Children love to model the behaviour of their parents too, so by behaving in this way you are also presenting a wholly positive mealtime role model.
The mealtime battle lines may remain in place for some time where you kids are concerned, but as a responsible parent your persistence is necessary and will ultimately be appreciated. Even if your kids never actually acknowledge it. Honest, it will!