Eating Together to Eat Better

family dinner
Eating dinner together makes mealtimes fun and allows parents to model healthy eating for their children.

Eating better is not one of the easier healthy habits to put into place — especially for the youngest members of the family. Some picky eaters would live on fruit snacks and string cheese if given the opportunity.

Michelle Townsend
Michelle Townsend

Studies continue to show that parents and caregivers can do a lot for their children by modeling good eating habits. Michelle Townsend, a registered dietitian at MU Health Care, has some tips for parents who want to help their kids expand their palates and develop healthy habits.

Many parents struggle with fussiness at mealtime. Why is it difficult for some children to try new foods?

It's very true that mealtime is a struggle for many families, especially those with toddlers and younger children who tend to be picky eaters. Keep in mind that trying new foods involves almost all of our senses: sight, smell, taste and touch. We know children can require 15 to 20 exposures to a food before they decide to eat it, and these can include not only tasting the food, but also touching it and smelling it.

Often, the picky eater is a developmental stage when kids are asserting their independence. Food choices and refusals are part of that. Parents who identify as picky eaters are more likely to have picky eater children, as well. But sometimes there can be more serious underlying issues, like gastrointestinal or behavioral problems, so it's not something to ignore. If you notice your child's picky eating affecting behavior, growth or overall health, contact your child's doctor.

What advice do you have to help parents overcome this stage?

Try to be patient. If you don't notice related behavior issues, trust that healthy kids are born intuitive eaters and they're able to know and respect their feelings of hunger. Often when we intervene too much, we make things worse rather than better. "This too shall pass" is a good motto for dealing with a stage of picky eaters. It's also important to keep these tips in mind:

  • Avoid fighting about food.
  • Resist the urge to control, indulge or neglect your child's food preferences.
  • Model healthy eating behaviors.
  • Eat together as a family whenever possible.
  • Eat at the table rather than in front of the TV or in the car, etc.
  • Turn off screens during mealtime.
  • Have reasonable expectations of how long a kid can stay at the table during mealtime based on age and attention span.
  • Be consistent.

From a health perspective, what is the value in being an adventurous eater?

Being an adventurous eater leads to a child eating a good variety of foods, including more nutritious options such as fruits and vegetables, which can help keep children healthy. Not only does this give them all of the vitamins and minerals needed to stay on track for development, it also supports a healthy weight.

What role can family meals and parent behavior play in shaping a child's willingness to explore new foods?

Children learn so much from the family dinner table that eating together is one of my top recommendations not only for nutrition but also for development. Children actually develop social skills in just watching other family members interact around the dinner table, including conversational flow and manners. Small children also can be exposed to new words as they listen to their family members talk to each other, which can enhance language development. Talking about how things are going at school can also help with self-esteem. Research suggests eating together reduces drug or alcohol use and disordered eating habits and improves healthy eating habits, weight, family relationships and school grades.

Not only does all of this help children blossom socially, but it is a great time to model good eating habits. When children see their parents eating healthy foods, it makes them more likely to try those foods. Parents can also talk about the foods with their kids. Possible topics include color, texture and where the food came from. For example, how and where does that fruit or vegetable grow?

Keep it simple and take the pressure off yourself to cook a family meal from scratch. A rotisserie chicken, frozen steamed bag of vegetables or salad and whole grain bread is a great family meal that requires little preparation time. A lot of families succeed with meal subscription services as a fun way to cook and eat together as a family. They provide all the ingredients and the recipe.

What tips do you have for encouraging children to try new foods?

Keep offering a wide variety of foods, and offer tastes of foods instead of larger portions of only a few foods, as this can allow children to choose what they want to eat without having the caregiver become a short-order cook. Some families have a two-bite rule in which kids have to have two bites of each thing on their plates. This can encourage children to taste foods while not entering the power struggle that can come when parents and their kids disagree on which foods the child should eat.

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