Tuesday, April 15, 2014

8 Ways to Improve Family Meals Today

I am sure most of you can agree, it's easy to figure out what to feed children. Vegetables, fruits, protein, whole grains, and more vegetables. The real question is: how in the world do you actually pull this off? As a part of my research and consulting work, I have had the opportunity to observe and learn from many families and schools. Here are some practical tips I have picked up along the way that I plan to incorporate into mealtime with our family as Nicolas joins us at the table in a few short weeks.
  1. Give them the breakables. Children will rise to the occasion and our expectations of them. This starts with how we serve the food. Adults give children plastic plates because we expect them to be thrown. If we give them glass or porcelain, we expect them to be treated carefully. Not ready to risk broken dishes? Try Corelle or Stainless--the more they resemble the family kitchenware the better. 
  2. Take a seat. Select a comfortable highchair that grows with the child and can be pulled up to the table (sans tray) with the family. Also, consider choosing a chair that the child will be able to climb in and out of independently. We love our Keekaroo which holds up to 250 pounds, although we plan to retire it before that point. 
  3. Start small with new foods. If a friend had you over for dinner and was serving liver, would you want them to serve you a heaping or one small piece? Sometimes new or not preferred food can be overwhelming--for children and adults. Rather than a scoop of peas, try just serving one pea. Make it approachable. The research shows that multiple exposures to new foods make kids more likely to eat them--this could be either exposure through taste or simply seeing it on the plate (Heath et al., 2011). 
  4. Serve courses. Some kids will eat a variety of foods...but tend to fill up on bread without "saving room" for vegetables. Research shows that serving a plate of vegetables before the main course increased vegetable intake over 40% (Spill et al. 2010). 
  5. No multi-tasking. The table is for eating.  Not toys, phones, or tablets. Be consistent with this to prevent begging. 
  6. Be engaged in conversation, but do not nag. When you put a plate of food in front of a child (or animal for that matter) they know exactly what to do. Eat it. Turn your conversation to something other than the food. 
  7. Give them a sign. Even before they can speak, children need a way to signal when they are full. This could mean using a bib that can be easily pulled off, using sign language to say "all done", or just screaming (Skinner et al., 1998). Figure out what type of communication works best for your family.
  8. Last but not least: Remember the cardinal rule of feeding children. Parents select the foods and children choose how much to eat. Resist the temptation to encourage three more bites. No coercing to take a taste, or flying the airplane into the hangar. Just do your job, which is to provide good, healthy food. The children will do the rest (Satter, 1986).
Read the research: 
  • Heath, P., Houston-Price, C., & Kennedy, O. (2011). Increasing food familiarity without the tears. A role for visual exposure?. Appetite, 57(3), 832-838.
  • Satter, E. (1986). The feeding relationship. Journal Of The American Dietetic Association, 86(3), 352-356.
  • Spill, M., Birch, L., Roe, L., & Rolls, B. (2010). Eating vegetables first: the use of portion size to increase vegetable intake in preschool children. American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 91(5), 1237-1243. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.29139
  • Skinner, J.D., Carruth, B., Houck, K., Moran III, J., Reed, A., Coletta, F., & Ott, D. (1998). Mealtime communication patterns of infants from 2 to 24 months of age. Journal of Nutrition Education, 30(1), 8. 


  1. As parents, it's so easy to get hung up on vegetables, but I think it's also worth noting that kids can get plenty of nutrients from fruits, whole grains, protein, and dairy.

    I'm also curious what impact snacking has on the healthy meal eating habits you've shared.

  2. I agree about getting hung up on vegetables--there are so many ways to get the vital nutrients into kids--especially with milk, orange juice, and various cereals all being vitamin fortified these days. However it's important to continue to offer a variety of foods (including veggies) to your children even if they don't eat them. The constant exposure to them is so important for developing long-term healthy eating habits.

    Snacking is a great topic--I think I'll dedicate another post to that!