“Just how important are family meals?” Very important! Without having structured meals your child’s eating will get very loose. It will be very difficult for you to feed your child in a way that allows them to grow up to be a healthy eater. Life gets really busy very easily, there may be more baby’s come along, more activities in the week, but make sure family mealtimes don’t suffer.
What should we be doing?
- Eating at set times every 2 to 3 hours
- 3 main meals
- 2-3 mid meals
- Sitting down
Why is it so important to have meal times?
When there are no structured meal times and children graze it’s harder for them to eat the right amount. They won’t tune into their feelings of hunger and fullness and may over or under eat. They’ll also be less likely to be interested in the nutritious meal you’ve served and more likely to be naughty. A lot of fussy eating behaviour can be addressed when you get meals sorted.
When children know that a meal will be coming soon, they won’t become obsessed with food. Children who are described as compulsive eaters and act like they can’t be filled up, may not have been provided with reliably timed meals. The child gets food sometimes and not others and doesn’t know when their food is coming. Therefore they overeat when they can. The outcomes of this can be really damaging for long term health and weight management.
Grazing on food frequently can also lead to children having problems with their teeth. You’ll find grazing will lead to you doing more work, cleaning up the place because of sticky hands etc.
Eating together is important
Family meals offer emotional and social learning opportunities that are important for emotional development. When your child enjoys and behaves well at meals, over time, they’ll learn to eat almost everything you eat. You being there is really important.
Add a dash of you to the meal for feeding success.
Children will eat better with you there, they’ll be more courageous when it comes to eating new foods. When you’re eating the same food they’ll know it’s safe and will be more willing to have a try: see Role Modelling. Providing regular family meals reassures your child that they’re a priority.
Other benefits of the family meal
Research says that children who grow up having family meals are less likely to become overweight, abuse drugs, smoke, more likely to feel better about themselves, get along better with other people, and do better in school.
Creating great meal times
Creating a household meal time habit.
Life gets busy and I’m sure you can think of lots of reasons why getting together for a meal may be difficult. You might not be used to it, having not had family meals growing up.
There will be avoidable and unavoidable things stopping you from getting to a family meal, but make sure whoever can get there eats together. Try to plan to be around for meals.
Don’t have two separate eating times, one for you and one for them, it may be that you eat a little bit earlier and they eat a little bit later. Eating with everyone there is not always possible but try to eat together when you can. We hope to get these things right ‘most’ of the time.
Keep it chilled!
Your aim is that meal time is a nice and pleasant time. Be there for your child, keep them company, have mellow chats, help them with what they need and enjoy this time yourself.
Don’t use this time to have a ruck with your partner, other children or to bring up negative topics likely to upset people. Your toddler will get upset. Once they’re upset the chances of having a good eating event go down big time. Your child will not want to try any new foods and their appetite will be overcome by their feeling of being upset.
Trying to restrict or pressure your child’s eating will turn dinner into a battle ground. A lot of meals have been ruined with fights over vegetables. Don’t pick your battles don’t pick any battles!
It will be messy, stay calm and be patient. Embrace it, it will help your baby to enjoy mealtimes.
Your bub needs to get to know food and this can be achieved by playing and throwing. But if it becomes all about throwing food around then we’ll know that they’re not hungry and the meal should end.
You can make cleaning up easier by spreading newspaper or plastic under the highchair and having a cloth handy.
Don’t have any distractions at the table that make eating compete with other activities. It’s all about you guys and the food. This is a way we can fully tap into our hunger and fullness feelings and know when to stop eating (a very handy skill for weight management and ongoing health).
Turn off the TV, put down books toys and games. Definitely no phones at the table.
What about the food?
Your job is to provide food and the child decides to eat or not…..you might as well make it food that you like, you have privileges!
- Everyone at the table gets the same foods
- Provide both familiar with unfamiliar foods for children
- Provide preferred foods with less preferred
- You choose food not your child, don’t make any substitutes
- Your family’s meals don’t always have to be about home-cooked meals, make getting together the first priority.
We’d rather call this the mid meal than snack, to emphasise the importance this meal is to contributing nutrition. These are little meals, not just food handouts. Infants and children have little tummies and need opportunities to eat nutritious foods more often (every 2 -3 hours).
- Sit down for the mid meal
- Make sure there are foods available that are hearty and filling enough to satisfy your child
- Let your child eat as much as they are hungry for.
- Make sure that you’re there
- Don’t allow yourself or your child to eat on the run or eat along with other activities
- Don’t let your child have food between meals except for water. There will be a time for eating just around the corner when they can eat until they’re satisfied
- Provide a sit-down bedtime snack, even if your child didn’t eat much at dinner. Make it something filling but not thrilling, such as cereal or crackers or milk.
Your child being hungry between meal times is their problem not yours. They’ll get used to this very quickly and know that a meal is coming soon, keep your nerve and keep the structure. Your job is getting meals and snacks onto the table at reliable times. If they’re dictating when the meals are and what is provided you’ll run into problems.
Meal time routines
Your child can understand more and more over time so it’s time to start getting them used to a meal readiness routine. Give them a verbal notification “Charles the meal will be occurring in 5 minutes, lets wash our hands”.
Bring your child to the table and have them sit in their chair.
Have a finishing routine when everyone is done. Bring it up if your child tries to get down too early “we haven’t finished our routine yet, it’s not time to get down” i.e. this could be knife/fork on plate, wipe hands or whatever you think is important.