As a dietitian, I often speak to parents about family meal times. Some things parents of young children worry about are when their children refuse to eat, play with their food, won’t eat vegetables, dislike or won’t try new foods, or only want one food.
A way to help your children with these concerns is by having enjoyable meal times. Having family meals, when you are able to, helps with children’s social and emotional development. Family meals help children learn about eating and helps to teach them good habits.
Food has the potential to bring people together, and having family meal times is an important experience for children.
Meal time should be a calm environment, with no distractions, such as no screens for parents and kids, remove toys, and try to avoid interruptions. Engage the children in positive interactions by creating family conversations even when they are quite young.
Tips to foster healthy eating habits for your child:
- Stay calm
- Be a positive role model
- Don’t use food as a reward
- Get the kids involved with the food; have them help plan, shop, and cook
- Make sure they come to the table hungry, no snacks before dinner
- Offer child size portions
- Allow kids to explore their food, make a mess
- Encourage children to help you clean up spills.
- Don’t continually wipe their hands or mouths during mealtimes as it interrupts the flow of eating
- Help children to learn mealtime activities , for example how to; set the table, serve themselves, use condiments, or stir dishes
- Plan fun activities to encourage your children to try new foods. Read a book or tell a story about a new food before offering the food.
Your child will learn to eat a variety of foods and parents/caregivers and the child have an important role to play. As a parent/caregiver, offer a variety of foods, including foods the child dislikes. Serve only one meal for the family and avoid solely catering to the child’s preferences. This can help reduce some of the stress of mealtime for parents.
As the parent/caregiver, you decide:
- what food is offered to the child
- when meals and snacks will be served
- where the child will eat
Trust that your child will listen to their own appetite and eat enough food.
Your child decides:
- how much they will eat or if they will eat at that time.
Your child knows when they are hungry and full, so pay attention to their feeding cues. Remember their stomach is a lot smaller than adults, meaning they will eat smaller amounts but more often in a day.
Being creative and not pressuring the child to eat new foods will help your child enjoy mealtimes, develop lifelong healthy eating habits and provide a potential to discover and enjoy new foods.
Contact Toronto Public Health at (416) 338-7600 and speak to a health professional if you have additional questions about your child’s eating habits and intake.