If dinnertime with your kids feels filled with chaos and stress, you’re not alone. In my years as a preschool teacher and parent coach, I’ve heard these complaints from parents more times than I can count:
- My kid won’t try new foods.
- I can’t get my kid to stay put at the dinner table.
- None of us can enjoy our meal because the entire time is spent negotiating about how much they have to eat before they can get dessert.
When you work hard to prepare a dinner that you hope your kids will enjoy, it can be a huge disappointment when they don’t—or worse, refuse to even try it. In moments like this, though, it’s important to consider your priorities, and what you really want dinnertime to be about.
Make time together your top priority
Is your dinnertime priority the dinner or the time? If the goal of mealtime is the time together and connection with your kids, the food becomes secondary. Prioritize activities like:
- preparing the food together (even little hands can help out with peeling, pouring, measuring and stirring)
- setting the table
- pouring drinks for one another
- passing dishes—family style—around the table
Each of these activities prioritizes connection over consumption. Focus more on ways to make the time social and to get them emotionally invested, and less on how much they’re eating. Plus, this lack of pressure actually makes themmore likely to eat the food you put in front of them—and if they don’t, you can relax because you know the real purpose of mealtime is to connect. Your job is to create the space and provide the food; the rest is up to them. Which brings me to my next point…
You decide what, when and where. They decide whether and how much.
According to the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model, in order to raise healthy eaters, parents should adhere to a Division of Responsibilty. In this model, parents are responsible for providing the food and the time and place in which to eat it. Kids are in charge of whether they eat that food and how much of it they eat. Of course, there are several things we can do to make their eating more likely, such as:
- Pairing a new food with a “safe” favorite, so you know that if they are hungry, there is something on the table that they will eat.
- Offering kids ways to get involved in preparing the food and setting the table. For example, gathering branches and leaves in the backyard for a centerpiece is always a fun pre-dinner activity.
- Making sure dinner is offered at a time that isn’t too close to the last time they ate (so they are actually hungry) or too close to bedtime (so they aren’t too tired and cranky).
- Checking their physical environment. Are their chairs the right size and height for them? Are they physically comfortable and able to reach everything well enough? Is their tableware the right size and age appropriate? Are there noisy distractions in the background (like music or television)? Create a space that is comfortable and pleasant enough to hang out in for more than just a few minutes.
If you want to offer dessert, make it part of the meal.
Registered dietitians, much to the shock of most parents, often advocate for putting dessert out on the table with dinner. This takes the charge and excitement out of the dessert, and relegates it to just another part of the meal. It also eliminates the possibility that dessert will be used as a reward for eating vegetables, which has long been thought to support dessert worship and actually get in the way of healthy eating. And remember not to stress out if they choose to eat dessert first. Over time, the novelty of having a cookie before broccoli will wear off and they might even--gasp!--forego dessert on occasion. In the long run, this unconventional approach supports the development of a healthy and balanced relationship with food.
Mealtimes where everyone in our home can gather together offer us a sacred opportunity to celebrate and connect with our family. And at the end of the day, by decreasing our goal-oriented focus on making our kids eat what we want them to and in the amounts we want them to, and increasing our focus on creating a positive experience for everyone involved, we have a better shot of getting what we really want—healthy and connected kids.
Autumn Vandiver is a preschool teacher and parent coach. You can learn more about her and her work at coachingwithautumn.com