Importance of Mealtime for your Children
Eating healthfully is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your baby. Smart choices can help you promote proper growth and development.
Good nutrition and a balanced diet will help your child grow up healthy. Whether your kid is a toddler or a teen, you can take steps to improve nutrition and encourage smart eating habits. Five of the best strategies are:
- Have regular family meals.
- Serve a variety of healthy foods and snacks.
- Be a role model by eating healthy yourself.
- Avoid battles over food.
- Involve kids in the process.
But it's not easy to take these steps when everyone is juggling busy schedules and convenience food, such as fast food, is so readily available. Here are some suggestions to help you incorporate all five strategies into your routine.
The way we feed our children during the first five years of life affects everything — their physical health, and their emotional and social development, as well as how they learn.
Feeding our young children well results in more than good health. Feelings of safety, security and bonding between adults and children are also results of a positive feeding relationship.
The results don’t change for school-age children and teens. Family mealtimes create stronger family bonds by giving family members the feeling of being needed and of belonging to the family.
Eating together promotes better communication. Families can keep up-to-date on what’s going on with school, jobs and friends. Parents can teach children table manners, basic cooking skills, social skills, family values and a sense of community.
Teens continue to benefit from family meals. Results of recent studies show that the more often teens eat at home, the more well-adjusted they are. Those who eat with their families at least five times a week are less likely to be depressed or do drugs, and more likely to be motivated in school and to have better relations with their friends.
Young children have short attention spans. Keeping quiet or sitting still for a very long time can be hard for small children. Since young children do not realize how much noise they’re making, it helps if adults can learn to shut their minds to some noise. This does not mean that children should be allowed to take over the household and bombard you with constant noise. TV can be a major distraction at mealtimes. Turn off the tube, and turn on the conversation.
Children have to learn to share. They gradually grow from the early “I,” “me,” and “mine” stage to the more grown-up “we,” “us” and “our” stage. Learning to think in terms of others is something that children usually begin when they are about four years old.
To help them learn to share, share with your children, encourage them to share with you and others, show approval for others’ sharing, and show approval for your own children’s sharing (even if it’s done only in small steps). Don’t expect too much; don’t force it. Passing food around the table and sharing what’s left are good examples of sharing.
By reaching and pulling bits of food close (also called “raking”), children are taking their first step toward feeding themselves. Picking up finger foods is the next step: children develop their “pincer grasp” by using thumbs and forefingers together to pick up small pieces of food. These skills develop into the ability to self-feed with a spoon, hold a pencil, and cut with scissors during the toddler years.
It is easy to believe that if children can talk they also can understand. But, as in other areas of growth, language development takes a long time. And the rate of this growth varies from child to child. Children really have two sets of words— one set that they only say and another that they understand. Your children come to understand what words mean through specific experience with them.
Your child may ask, “What’s that?” You may reply, “Toast.” But it isn’t until he can put a slice of bread in the toaster, see the bread become warm and brown, and savor the good taste, that he understands what toast is.
Meals are a time for eating and learning. By sharing in mealtime talk, children can practice skills (like asking questions and sharing stories) that will help them later in school. Children can learn new words and learn more about the world around them by listening to mealtime talk.
First, Aim for Cooperation
Your child wants to try to do more for herself. She knows what she likes and doesn’t. Introducing new foods, knowing what’s enough and using manners are all issues.
Here are some solutions to try:
- Let her help prepare the meal. She’ll be more likely to eat it.
- Provide regularly scheduled meals and snack times. Never force your child to eat.
- Remember that children’s serving sizes are smaller than adults’. Determine food portions based on your child’s age. (See UMCE bulletins #4298, “Food Guide Pyramid Daily Food Choices for Children Ages 1 - 5 Years” and #4280, “How Much Is a Serving?”)
- Make mealtime and snack time a pleasant event. Eat with your child. Be a role model. Avoid making an issue about your food preferences.
- Ask your child how much he wants to eat or let him serve himself. This can lead to less wasted food and fewer mealtime hassles.
- Have a routine that lets him know when it’s time to stop what he’s doing, when to wash up and when to come to the table.
- Give praise for positive behavior. When children feel good about how they feed themselves, they tend to eat better.
- Teach by showing instead of just telling. For example say, “Holding the cup with both hands like this makes it easier to use.”
- Teach your child how to do something by showing her first, then letting her try.
- Keep in mind that your child might not do a perfect job at first. Give praise for effort (“I can see you’ve worked hard on that. I am proud of how hard you tried.”)
- Share with other family members how your child helped. Ask him to describe what he did and what it was like.
Teaching a child to understand time requires a lot of patience. You may be wrapped up in washing the dishes when your child asks for a drink. If your “just a minute” stretches into several minutes, your child will become impatient and will also misunderstand the meaning of a minute. Children’s limited understanding of the passing of time is one of the reasons they find it difficult to put off pleasures.
You can help your child learn new words by speaking clearly and distinctly and by listening carefully when she talks to you. When you speak to your child, speak simply and directly. For example, “Time to eat now, play later” is much more meaningful to a small child than “Stop fooling around and spending so much time playing when we need to eat.”
Tips for Happy Meals
- Be a role model. Children are more likely to eat lots of different foods if they see that their parents like different foods, too.
- Relaxed and comfortable feelings in a family result in good eating habits. Make mealtimes pleasant and fun.
- A parent’s job is to plan and make healthy meals and snacks. A child’s job is to decide how much to eat or whether to eat at all. Children want to take charge of their food choices. Encourage, but do not force, children to “taste.”
- Children never outgrow their need for being with their family at mealtimes.
- Young children are messy eaters. Prepare for messes—they’re part of children learning to feed themselves.
- Young children enjoy helping to make food as well as to eat it. Sometimes, helping to make meals encourages children to try foods they might not otherwise want to taste.
- Parents are responsible for their child’s safety at mealtimes. Have a comfortable, safe seat with support for older babies and toddlers.
- Learn all you can about what to expect from your child at different ages.Their behavior may simply reflect their stage of development.