If there’s one goal I recommend all families set, it’s to try and share family mealtimes together wherever possible. One of the silver linings of covid lockdowns and homeschooling has been the ability for more parents to sit down with their kids at breakfast, snack time, lunch or dinner - a feat that was virtually impossible for many in the pre-covid world and all its office working hours, after school activities and commitments. And, eating together as a family can start as soon as your baby is introduced to solids!
Studies show that regular family meals can improve a child’s vocabulary, mood, academic success, and outlook on the future. I am a firm believer that family meals are also the cornerstone of healthy eating, so every night I make an effort to sit down with my children (and at the moment, let’s face it it’s for breakfast, lunch and a few snacks too!). If it is too early for me to eat a full dinner when my kids do, I make an effort to eat part of what they’re eating. For some families, sitting together for meals is still only possible on the weekends and that’s ok, anytime is a good time and worth the effort!
Key ingredients of successful family meals:
Family meals are an ideal opportunity for children to benefit from positive role modelling. But in order for it to be truly beneficial, the main focus of the experience must also be pleasant and engaging! It’s all about enjoying quality time together, to ensure food and mealtimes are bright with positive associations.
If you’re a new parent, sitting down to eat together with your baby may seem quite unrealistic, but believe me when I say it is much easier than you think! From 6 months, your baby can begin to share some of your healthy, home-cooked family meals. Simply separate their portion before adding seasoning and serve either mashed, pureed or as finger foods.
Make food pleasurable from the word go
Babies have their own unique little appetites, and their hunger and satiety cues should be your guide when feeding them. Some babies will start off with a small amount and slowly build up, while others might be really hungry and eat more than the “recommended” amount.
My best advice to you is to be guided by your little one. The worst thing you can do is to stop feeding your baby simply because a meal is recommended as a certain amount, or to force feed them if you think they haven’t had enough. This is the start of positive mealtime associations and connections. Aim for eye contact and always focus on engaging your baby and interacting with them while they’re eating.
What about fussy eaters?
Fussy eaters tend to feel a sense of anxiety or stress in the lead up to and during mealtimes. This anxiety negatively affects their appetite because once the “fight-or-flight” stress response kicks in, it switches off their digestive system.
When mealtimes become an enjoyable, non-pressurised experience, where you focus more on connecting with each other rather than how much is being eaten, your child can start to relax and, when they do, their whole sensory system will calm down. Over time, they may even be more likely to explore new foods.
4 Strategies for successful mealtimes
Embrace mess - Allow babies to reach for food and feed themselves. If your baby is being spoon fed, offer him his own spoon to attempt to feed himself or have two spoons at mealtimes, one for you and one for your child. Babies who are allowed to get messy with their food through exploration are often less fussy down the track! The same goes for toddlers and preschoolers, try not to focus on what lands on the floor or table and to celebrate self feeding and the enjoyment of food.
Repetition - Make new foods familiar by repeatedly offering them in a calm, familial environment. A child will not go to a stranger the first time they meet them, but after a few visits they generally feel more comfortable to sit with them. The same goes for new foods! Repeated exposure aids the process of engaging with new tastes and flavours. You can also try offering these same foods in different ways - cut into fun shapes, laid out in colour patterns, steamed rather than raw.
Desensitisation - Try putting a fresh salad on the table with child sized tongs and side plates to encourage children to explore and pick out what they want. Children learn to expect fresh veggies with meals if this is repeated daily. Struggling to get your child to try what’s on offer? Keep mealtimes stress free by boosting the foods you know they’ll eat while working on longer lasting behavioural changes. Check out my new booster, Veggies+ which has a hard to detect flavour and is incredibly versatile in cooking or adding to finished meals.
Structure - Structured mealtimes have been linked to less fussiness and more enjoyment of food in children. If a child knows when to expect food, they will be less likely to nag for sugary, unhealthy treats during the day. Structure and consistency also helps children tune in to their hunger and satiety cues, promoting healthier eating habits.
Don’t do it all at dinner
Dinner can often be the most difficult meal of the day as everyone is tired, which means it is not always the best meal to introduce new or tricky foods. Relax if your child is not an enthusiastic dinner eater. The focus should be on getting them to sit at the table and enjoy the time with the family (And ensure breakfast and lunch are extra boosted with nutrition!). If you need a helping hand with this, check out my Protein+, Veggies+ and Superfruits+ boosters.
"My key philosophy, shared with feeding expert Ellyn Satter, pioneer of the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model, is that parents decide what, when and where their child will eat. And children learn to regulate their own appetite by being responsible for how much they eat." - Mandy Sacher
For more tips and tricks on setting up healthy mealtimes from the get go, checkout my Starting Solids course and for extra support in making progress with a fussy eater, have a look at my Fussy Eating Strategies & Solutions course.