New research shows most parents like to eat healthy meals as a family, but only 40% manage it. Charlotte Stirling-Reed gives us her top tips to make mealtimes easier.
Feeding kids isn’t always is easy is it? For so many reasons it can be a minefield. Finding healthy meals that children actually want to eat is often very tricky. Getting your toddler to swallow a piece of broccoli must surely be one of life’s simplest but greatest pleasures!
Add to the struggle of getting youngsters to eat well with the constant juggle of our busy lives and you have a recipe for a challenge. It’s hard to managed a family’s schedule and still try find time to prepare and cook nutritious suppers for all the family to enjoy together.
Of course, in an ideal world every family would love to sit down around the table to eat a homemade meal, but for many that’s a logistical impossibility as parents try to balance out their working lives and with kids’ – often equally hectic – school timetables. It can feel like you need a family spreadsheet just to get everyone together for dinner.
Indeed a recent survey of 2,000 parents of children under 14 by Scandinavian nursery brand, Stokke, found that while 86% of parents believe it’s important to eat dinner as a family, just two in five (41%) say they eat together every night. Stokke are behind the iconic Tripp Trapp highchair that has sold more than 10 million worldwide since its launch in 1972. Central to to principle of the design is that children should join their parents at the table.
So how can we make it a bit easier to eat together as a family?
Charlotte Stirling-Reed BSc, MSc, RNutr., a specialist in baby and children nutrition for Stokke, has given us her top 10 expert tips on how to enjoy a healthy and happy mealtime.
Eat together, whenever possible
Make the most of family time around the table and try to sit together to eat whenever possible. Even if it’s just you and your baby or child – you being a part of their mealtime can make such a difference to their experience and even how much they enjoy it.
Get kids involved
I love the idea of bringing baby into the mealtime and right up to the table as early as possible. Get them involved in food by surrounding them by everyone else tucking into a delicious meal. Children learn the skills of eating, social skills and even WHAT foods they enjoy by first copying others. For older children, get them involved in prepping, shopping or even choosing what’s on the table at dinner times.
Eat similar foods, regularly
Rather than serving separate meals for everyone in the family, try and have one option that everyone tucks into. Even if you’re offering similar options such as gluten free pasta, dairy free cheese etc, it’s good for your little ones to see you eating similar foods (including all those veggies) to encourage them to eat a wide variety themselves.
Establish a routine
Having a routine around when meals are served can help get little ones ready for food, especially for infants, who tend to like set routines. Establishing a “pre eating” routine can also help to get children involved and get them excited about mealtimes too. It might be clearing away toys, laying the table, playing some music or starting with a little game, which helps to set the tone for the rest of the meal & get everyone talking and excited for what’s to come.
Try and make it distraction free
Distractions such as toys, TV or phones can take away from the concept of food and meals being important. They also distract from what can be a really vital social occasion for a family too. However, if we want little ones to grow up to love their food, we need to show them that the delicious, varied foods you put in front of them each day are worth their attention and time. So, try clearing away, switching off distractions and just focusing on you, them and that delicious bowl of food!
Take the pressure off and leave out the rules
That said, making mealtimes too pressured and setting mealtime rules such as clearing the plate, eating veggies first, sitting down until everyone has finished, can end up making mealtimes pressured and less enjoyable for kiddies. Stick to rules that you think are 100% necessary and avoid too much pressure for children to “eat up” a specific part, or all of their meal. It’s good to keep mealtimes light and enjoyable to help children WANT to be a part of them.
Give kids some choice
Offering choices between A and B can give your little ones some autonomy when it comes to food choices. It’s a form of covert parenting that allows you to still have the ultimate control of what’s offered, but it gives them some independence and allows them to feel like you’re also valuing their opinions too. This can also help with fussy eaters. An example might be “do you want that with potato or pasta today?” “Do you want peas or carrots on the side?”
Try sharing platters
I love the Mediterranean style of sharing platters for mealtimes too, offering an array of foods, and allowing everyone to help themselves to whatever parts of the meal they want. This might not always work, but if you allow them to have their independence whilst also role modelling and showing how you, yourself, have a wide variety on your own plate, they are likely to pick up some tips and eating habit just from watching you!
Vary what’s on offer
One of the biggest reasons I see for children going off food is boredom. It’s SO easy to get somewhat stuck offering the same foods each week, but by offering a really wide variety, not only are you exposing your children to a variety of tastes and flavours and nutrients, you’re also preventing them getting fed up with the same meals over and over again. I am totally aware this one is easier said than done, but try making some bulk meals at the weekend and then tapping into them where possible during the week. Menu plans can really work for some families too.
Make it fun
Just try to relax, stay calm and make those mealtimes enjoyable for everyone. Once you step back, take away some of the rules and start enjoying the social time with your little ones, it’ll become so much easier to make the occasion fun and enjoyable for everyone else too. Try using colourful napkins, tablecloths or even a beautiful bowl of fruits and veggies to keep it vibrant or play some calming music in the background to set the scene. What works will differ from family to family, so have a play with some ideas that make you and yours happy, and see what works!