I often advise parents that what occurs at the family table lays the foundation of their kids’ future eating habits. What they eat and see (or do not see) at the table has a strong influence on how they will eat when away from home as young adults and thereafter. However, eating as a family can be fraught with challenges, such as timing clashes and differences in individual tastes. These differences can lead to tension and conflict, such that family members sometimes choose to eat separately rather than deal with mealtime stress.
In our household, it is impossible for my three-year-old to wait for his father to come home for dinner. It is simply the reality of working and commuting in Beijing. So I snack on nuts or have a helping of salad with my son at the table to keep his dinner conversation going. This keeps the social meal context alive much better than me sitting in front of him hawking over what goes uneaten on the plate. Taking the pressure off encourages self-feeding and, importantly, shifts the focus from the food on the plate to the overall meal experience. This turns the meal into a chance to talk about the day or even make up silly stories about robots and talking cars, or whatever is on his mind. Weekend meals, however, have become quite sacred and we strive to have slow meals together as a family.
Respect individual tastes. Many parents set out with the good intention of teaching food tolerance and appreciation, only to be met with failure, even after trying every feeding strategy in the playbook. Often they’re overlooking the most important underlying problem: nobody I know likes everything. Even nine-month-olds have their own taste preference; so don’t expect a toddler or teenager to like everything on the table. Some tastes may be acquired over time (think of blue cheese, durians and raw onions to name a few), with changes in preferences over time. But some things are simply never meant to be. The key is to work with those differences.
Remember the importance of nutrition. Individual families may have different calorie needs but all most certainly require nutrient rich foods. High calorie foods that tend to be popular with young children, such as white rice, soft bread and fries, lack vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health and development. Giving into your child’s demand for grilled cheese at every dinner is not only nutritionally unsound; it also teaches them that junk food can be part of a regular meal rather than an occasional treat. Eating healthy, diverse meals with young children can help to avoid this situation.
Do what you preach. Now that we’ve covered the need for family togetherness, respecting individual preferences and not giving up the nutrition battle, it is a good time to look at your own habits. It is possible that you have some habits that might not fare well under nutritional scrutiny. Only you can decide if your pattern of eating (not just what you are eating) is as healthy as you would like it to be. Remember, you’re setting the example for your child. Whatever you do, you can be sure he is watching you.
Got a question? Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.