The time is 6:00pm, your kids are home doing their school work and you are finishing up on emails from the work day. You start to feel that hunger starts to creep to the forefront of your consciousness.
Today is another day where you hadn’t remembered to defrost any meat so you don’t have any plans for dinner. Instead you decide to order out and ask the kids what they would want from one of the various fast food restaurants.
You think - “Okay this is all the time I have for right now - next time we’ll have a sit down dinner”
Once the food arrives everyone continues to be in their own little world - eating in individual rooms and apart from each other.
Does this sound like a typical weekday night?
If it does - keep reading because I want to talk about the importance of eating together as a family at least once a day (most likely dinner) and how you can have a positive impact on your children's eating skills.
"How do I get my kids to eat healthier?"
This is a question that has been asked many times by parents of all shapes and sizes. It's the age old question that puzzle many moms and dads who, of course, want the best for their kids (both young and older),
The answer may be easier than you think! Although Brittany and I do not have kids just yet, my experience as a coach as well as reading books like Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch have enlightened me to a few easy and actionable ways to find a solution to this puzzle.
Eating a meal together is more than just eating food in the same spot
We eat food to nourish ourselves, to sustain our energy, and to build muscle. Food eating is something that we all need to do to stay alive.
However eating food takes on more roles as you bring people together.
Think about it - we just had Thanksgiving pass us by and we have more holiday cheer coming up ahead of us. What do these holidays have in common? They all have a dinner meal at the center of the celebration.
Eating together is in our DNA, we look for social interactions to build security, trust, and to share experiences together.
If we can “break bread” with someone it will enhance your relationship together. Breaking bread is a big deal - we get to share this common experience together that offers an explosion of senses (sweet smell of the food, taste and texture, ambiance of environment etc.)
The power of eating together cannot be understated. Can you imagine what it would feel like to always cook for yourself, eat by yourself, and clean up by yourself? I know this is probably the case for some out there but don’t you feel better when you eat with those that you care about?
It’s because it’s natural and engrained in us that having a meal together is a basic social interaction in which we bond together.
This goes doubly true for families with kids - what and HOW you choose to eat will have huge impact on your kids. Even more importantly, the dinner table is a great opportunity to pass on healthy eating habits to your children from kids well into their teenage/young adult ages.
Why kids need you as their role model at the dinner table
As you already know - kids are sponges that absorb any and all information that is around them. Not only are they absorbing emotional reactions, and behavior tendencies they are also absorbing your understanding of food and eating.
Every decision that you make as a parent will be interpreted in some way by your child. They can make assumptions about a particular food group, a style of cooking, and/or what type of environment they are most comfortable eating in.
For example if you are the type of parent who will verbally denounce any and all vegetables - don’t be surprised when your kids don't want to try a new vegetable!
This is probably common sense for many but it’s important to understand the next part of this…
Not only does what you say about different foods impact your child’s perspective, but also HOW you eat.
For example if you are a parent who does not have the ability to stop when hungry - you might be passing this onto your kids.
Have you ever eaten so quickly that you’ve not paid attention to your internal cues of fullness? Usually this results in overeating which then results in the classic “I’m so stuffed I can’t even move”.
Your kids will see this and learn that the normal feeling after a meal is to feel so stuffed. Especially if this is a common theme in your own life - it only makes it that much more prevalent for your kids to take this on.
This might result in your child not knowing how to interpret their own internal cues for hunger and fullness leading kids to overeat and potentially become overweight because of this misunderstood interpretation of fullness and hunger.
What you can do to help your kids learn HOW to eat
Lead by example - be the person that you want your kids to look up to and model after. As a parent your inherent duty is to provide both the support and love to your child, as well as show them how to act. This goes true for eating as much as anything else in life (how to be emotionally healthy, how to deal with problems, how to speak to people etc.).
If you are prone to eating your meals very fast with little to no breaks in between bites - your kids will think that this is the normal routine of meal time.
Some good strategies to use are the following:
Try new foods: Even as an adult there are still new foods to try and just by you experiencing something new - your kids will follow suit. It just might take longer for them to try it. Give them time and space to try these new options.
Have a variety of options throughout the week (Include the major components of a well balanced meal...protein, carb, fat, and vegetable. Lead by example and eat what you would want your kids to eat. Try to stay away from talking about how there are good and bad foods. Kids love to rebel!)
Listen to your own body and slow down your eating (Take your time to talk, drink water, or just sit back to check in with your own hunger level mid-meal. This will help show your kids that it’s okay to stop with food on your plate. This will help kids understand that it's not about always finishing what's on your plate but listening to what your body needs..)
Try not to force your kids to eat a food that you deem “healthy” (This one is probably one of the hardest - when kids are given the chance to eat what they want, they will include less than ideal food but will also grab healthy options all on their own. Be patient and focus on those things that you can control to help SHOW them the benefits to choosing healthier options. You can ask your kids "How did all those cookies make you feel? Most likely they will talk about how they have a stomach ache!)
Speak about food in a positive way and make it a goal to have at least 1 meal a day together as a family. Food is meant to be enjoyed and spent together - make it this way.
Prepare meals together (Kids who help their parents with dinner preparation are far more likely to be interested in the meal for dinner. They will feel part of something, like they are contributing to the family in a meaningful way. This only enhances the experience while also providing important skills of prep and cooking!)
Avoid promoting and encouraging fad diet trends. Instead focus on creating a healthy relationship with food. This is huge because it will help your child to gain trust around food and their food choices (not to mention body confidence).
The family dinner is a vital time for connection between parents, kids, and siblings. Eating together offers learning experiences for your kids to then use on their own as they grow older.
As of right now I can only speak about being the kid part - not the parent part. However I can say that growing up we rarely tried new foods. We always would have the same 5 or so meals per week with the same vegetables, carb, and proteins.
As I began to grow into young adulthood I maintained this stricter view of food and didn’t want to try any foods that I have not seen before. It took me a few good years of opening up and allowing myself to try new tastes and textures and have since discovered a multitude of foods that I wish I had more growing up.
If you are finding that your kids are being rebellious , eating junk food to fill up on and spitting out food to feed to the dog - give yourself a check on how you view dinner and HOW you eat. What you do will have the biggest impact on your child’s view of food time.
Remember that you are constantly being looked up to to help your kids decide on how to interpret things. As if parenting wasn’t hard enough - teaching HOW to eat is vitally important for the healthy development of your kids' understanding of their own bodies.
Try out those above tips and be patient. Ask your kids what new food they would like to try - include them in the process of your family dinners. They will thank you for this even if they rebel against you in the moment.
Now go figure out what dinner meal you are making with the kids tonight and approach dinner time with a new sense of purpose and responsibility! As with most things, your actions will speak far more than your words.