As parents, we all get a bit tired of hearing the mealtime symphony of complaints:
“I don’t like mushrooms”
“I don’t want anything green”
“I only like raw carrots, not cooked”
“I don’t like chicken” (even though they liked it yesterday).
It’s not always necessarily all coming from the kids, either! Wouldn’t it be nice just to have a calm, stress-free mealtime? Even just once in awhile.
It’s a normal part of child development to refuse new foods (it’s their
annoying endearing way of exploring their environment, and asserting their independence), and to also have appetites that vary from day to day. I don’t like to label kids ‘picky’ or ‘fussy’, but rather think of them as learning to eat.
One way to make mealtimes a fun, calm, and social experience is to forget about pandering to every little food preference — which seem to change on an hourly basis — and just put it all in the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves. We do this for almost every mealtime at our place, and I can honestly say that we are yet to have a stressful mealtime. We’re yet to have a quiet one, though. One where the adults don’t have to use sign language just to communicate over the incessant chatter of a certain three year-old who only possesses an ‘outside voice’!
The ‘one family, one meal’ approach would have to be my favourite tip from many of the feeding experts. The part about sitting at the table is also key, of course. From the time a baby is 12 months old, the whole family can be eating the same food, so let’s make our lives easy by only preparing one wholesome meal.
What the experts say
It sets the mood for a calmer mealtime
“Setting up meals in this fashion automatically dictates a different mood. First of all, it helps to slow the meal down and make it less rushed. It also gives the meal some importance and creates an opportunity for discussion as bowls are being passed along” (Alisha Grogan, Pediatric Occupational Therapist of Your Kids Table).
“Dining together as a family is often the time we socialise and converse with our loved ones. As parents, we not only demonstrate the values of healthy eating (hopefully) but teach social values, table manners and the art of conversation. This is so simple but so very important for the health of the family unit” (Georgia Harding, Naturopath of Well Nourished).
It supports a child’s need for independence
“Give them the tongs, they will love it! This is great for them taking responsibility in their own eating but also good for fine motor skills” (Kate Wengier, Family Dietitian of Foost, & Ashley Smith, Dietitian of Donut Eating Dietitian).
They get to decide what and how much
“A Harvard study confirmed that children having dinner as a family most days were also more likely to consume more fruit and vegetables and generally have a higher intake of nutrients. Another study proposed that sharing just three meals a week, reduced the odds of children becoming overweight adults by 12 percent (Georgia Harding, Naturopath of Well Nourished).
Removes the pressure on kids
“What great exposure time for your child to learn – smell, see and interact with food (even if they don’t eat it). Don’t dismiss this learning step – it’s not about if they ate something new or not, it’s about helping them move up the “learning about a new food” steps like seeing other people eat it, smelling it and even helping pass the bowl around – small but important steps” (Valerie Gent, Paediatric Feeding Speech Pathologist, Certified Practising Speech Pathologist of Let’s Eat!).
They see everyone else eating
“There is also a boost of motivation because “everyone else is doing it”. I’m not talking about peer pressure here, but the child’s innate desire to mimic those around him” (Alisha Grogan, Pediatric Occupational Therapist of Your Kids Table).
It exposes them to a variety of food
“The early childhood years are a critical time for experiencing new foods and developing eating behaviours and food preferences. The greater the variety of foods that children are exposed to in their early years, the more likely it is that they will enjoy a variety of foods as adults” (The Department of Health, Australia).
12 extra quick tips for calm mealtimes
- Never force or pressure a child to eat
- Don’t give attention to a child’s negative comments about food
- Don’t reward behaviour with food, or deny food as punishment
- Set up a routine to eat at approximately the same time every day
- Ask the kids to help set and clear the table, as well as prepare the food
- Turn the TV off, and remove any other distractions from the table
- Set a time limit for about 20 minutes for meals if they tend to drag on
- Have realistic expectations about them trying new foods. A lick of one is a good start!
- Embrace the mess, try not to worry about spilled drinks or eating with fingers
- Make sure the kids haven’t eaten for at least two hours before a meal
- Drinks can be filling, so keep their cups small (preferably no milk with a meal)
- Chat about your day, there’s no need to only focus on the food
Please share in the comments what else works for your family. I know you’re all pressed for time, so these ideas are incredibly quick and easy. They’re even recipe-free. I know one reservation you might have about this style of eating is all the extra dishes, but believe me, it’s worth it. That’s what the dishwasher’s for anyway. There’s minimal food waste, too, so you can just wrap up the leftovers and add them to the next day’s lunchbox or dinner buffet. Even keeping salads ‘deconstructed’ and in separate bowls, and allowing everyone to add their own condiments and dressings means that the cut-up vegetables won’t go soggy overnight.
These meal ideas might seem really obvious and simple, but hopefully they’ll just inspire you and give you something to build on. Put all of these meals in the middle of the table, and encourage everyone to help themselves and put a little of everything on their plates. They just might surprise you!
Make them fish, chicken, pork, beef, or vegetarian (use any beans)
Add some fresh cut-up tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, lettuce, coleslaw
Grate cheese, and add sour cream/creme fraiche
Use soft or hard taco shells
If you like it spicy, add your own fresh chilli or smoked paprika
Use your burger of choice: a grilled piece of haloumi; veggie burger; a portobello mushroom; a fillet of fish; or a beef, chicken, or pork pattie
Lettuce, grated carrot, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, grated beetroot
Cheese, condiments, bread rolls
Add sides of sweet potato chips baked in the oven, or corn on the cob
3. Breakfast for dinner
Fry up some eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, capsicum etc
Serve with delicious sourdough toast and condiments of choice
Roast your meat of choice, and/or chickpeas for the vegetarians
Roast a medley of potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, onion, leek, fennel, zucchini, kale, and garlic in some olive oil and/or butter
Either steam or roast cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and green beans
5. Baked potatoes
Bake some potatoes or sweet potatoes
Cut up all kinds of raw veggies
Serve with cheese, butter, sour cream
Cook pasta and bring to the table plain, with a little olive oil and/or butter mixed through
Toppings can be grated carrot, zucchini, cheese; or tomato, basil, olives, and mozzarella
Additional toppings could be either tuna or grilled fish; leftover chicken and leftover roasted veggies
Add grated parmesan or another favourite cheese
7. Antipasto or ‘clear out the fridge’
Anything goes here, it doesn’t have to make any sense
Cut up whatever veggies you have in the fridge
Accompany with boiled eggs, olives, cheeses etc
Use up any leftovers
8. Meat and salad
Prepare your meat of choice, whether it’s steak, sausages, chicken breast, pork chops, lamb cutlets
Mix and match any salad vegetables
Add mixed beans
Leave dips and dressings separate
9. Wraps and baguettes
Chop up all of your raw vegetables, like tomato, avocado, spinach, carrot, and capsicum
Provide a cheese board (or dairy substitute, like cashew cheese)
Use either wraps, baguettes, bread (there are plenty of gluten-free options now)
10, Cheese and vegetables
A great vegetarian option. It’s a good opportunity to cook veggies all kinds of different ways
Roast potatoes, steamed broccolini and cauliflower, roasted brussels sprouts and mushrooms
Accompany the meal with mustards, sauerkraut, dips, avocado etc for flavour variety
Kids don’t need to just eat mild cheese. If dairy is ok, try soft cheeses, feta, goats cheese etc
Where to get more help
- Head to any of the websites listed in this post for more professional tips on calm mealtimes
- Read about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding here
- If you suspect your child is more than just picky, please read this from Your Kids Table for more information in determining the difference between picky eating and problem feeding
- If you’re concerned about any issues regarding your child’s eating, you can talk to your GP. A local speech pathologist, dietitian or OT with experience in paediatric feeding may be a good starting point.