Set an Extra Plate
It may sound counterintuitive, but if you'd like to help your child become a better eater invite one of their friends to dinner. "Asking a friend over for dinner benefits your child in more ways than you can imagine," says Melinda Johnson, MS, RDN, former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "When kids eat with a special guest, it's a fantastic opportunity for them to work on manners and social skills."
Eating with a buddy also makes your child more likely to try new foods — after all who wants to embarrass themselves by being picky? And it helps them learn to regulate how much they eat. According to a 2009 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study, preteen girls mirror their peers when it comes to the amount they choose to eat. Plus, it has perks for the whole family. "When we invite guests to dinner, meals tend to be healthier," says Johnson. "We're more likely to take the time to prepare a complete dinner rather than pick up takeout or heat something in the microwave." That translates into healthier side dishes like salads and vegetables and healthy starches like whole grains and potatoes.
So go ahead and get social! Here's how:
- Join in on the fun: While it may be tempting to set a kids' only table, try to sit down with your children. "Having an adult at the table makes meals a teachable moment where you can give praise for trying new foods and modeling good manners," says Johnson.
- Get the conversation flowing: Good conversation and good food go hand in hand. If pint-sized guests are shy at the dinner table get them involved by asking silly questions like, "what was the funniest thing you saw today?" or go around the table and let everyone take turns telling about their day, suggests Johnson.
- Take it outside: Meals with pals don't always have to be a formal event around the kitchen or dining room table. When the weather is nice plan a barbeque with friends in the backyard. If it's cold or rainy have a "picnic" in the family room.
- Unplug it: "Dinnertime is one of the few times in our hectic lives that we can give our kids our undivided attention," says Johnson. "Make the most of this by tuning out the outside world and tuning into your kids and their guests by turning off the TV and unplugging all cell phones and electronics."
- Keep 'em busy: Kids are more likely to be on their best behavior if they're engaged. Before mealtime let kids and their friends help set the table and (if they're old enough) pour drinks. Afterwards, keep a stash of board games and playing cards nearby to keep kids occupied while you clean up.