The key to calm, positive meal times is an appropriate division of responsibilities between adults and children. According to child feeding expert Ellyn Satter, MS, RDN, MSSW:
- Adults decide what foods and beverages are served. Plus, they choose where to serve the meal and make meal times pleasant.
- Children decide whether to eat and how much to eat. As they get older, they can learn age-appropriate table manners and meal time behaviors.
Make It Better
If you have picky eaters in your family, you already know the signs of when they dislike a meal: a blank stare, a turned-up nose, the plate pushed away. Instead of getting upset with their pickiness and falling into familiar mealtime battles, try a new tactic. Ask: "How can I make that better for you?"
This question seems simple, but it can work like magic to open lines of communication between you and your children, and can give kids a feeling of control to make the meal more enjoyable. It also may take the pressure off you, since you won't have to guess what they want — which changes frequently, anyway.
Phrasing is key. Instead of a negative question — such as, "Why don't you like it?" — a positive question allows for constructive problem-solving and innovative solutions that you create as a team.
The first time you ask, "How can I make that better for you?" your child may not know how to answer. That's OK. Here are some common complaints and suggested solutions (note that nuts and seeds are choking hazards for children under 4):
- "The food is too hot."
Put the plate in the fridge for a few minutes or add ice to hot soup.
- "The food is too cold."
A quick zap in the microwave or a few minutes under the broiler will help.
- "The food is plain."
Use "sprinkles" to add pizzazz to plates: flax seeds, sesame seeds, slivered almonds, fresh mint, shredded coconut, nutritional yeast, cinnamon, or shredded Parmesan or cheddar cheese.
- "The food is boring."
Add a dip such hummus, guacamole, mild salsa or a yogurt-based tzatziki. A dollop of dip adds flavor and fun.
- "The food is too crunchy."
Lightly steam vegetables or add a sauce or spread to crackers or toast.
- "The food is too creamy."
Add texture to soup or yogurt with nuts, seeds, panko breadcrumbs, croutons, granola, diced vegetables or fruit.
- "The plate has [fill in the blank] on it, and I don't like it."
Something as simple as a speck of green herbs or a bit of diced red pepper can be enough to ruin an entire dish for a child. Give your child permission to put the offending food to the side of the plate.
Be warned: The solution that works today may not work tomorrow. The answer to "How can I make that better for you?" will often change but it will always lead to some answer. Whether it's a sprinkle of cheese or removing the "green stuff," a simple question can save you from troublesome mealtimes and ensure everyone enjoys what they are eating.
6 More Ways to Have Meals without Squeals
- Make Regularly Scheduled Meals a Family Priority. Young children need the reassurance of structured meal and snack times. Eating on the run can be sufficient for adults, but it doesn't work well for children. Whether you are eating at home or at a restaurant, take the time to sit down and eat with your child.
- Avoid Pressuring or Forcing Children to Eat. Most adults have good intentions when they try to make children eat "healthy" foods or try new items. The problem with pressure is it doesn't work. Kids like foods less if they are forced to eat them.
- Model the Habits You Want Children to Develop. Young children do not automatically know how to eat like adults. They learn how to behave at the table by watching their most important role model, you, for developing lifelong, healthy eating habits.
- Enjoy the Foods You Want Your Children to Enjoy. Children learn to eat new foods by watching other people eat and enjoy them. If you want a child to eat green vegetables, you eat green vegetables. Serve them regularly in a variety of appealing ways. Talk about how good they taste and how they make you strong and smart.
- Create a Relaxed Atmosphere for Meal Times. The best family meals have minimal distractions. This means turning off the TV and handheld devices. Music can provide a pleasant background for meals if it is played at low volume and doesn't drown out conversation.
- Have Realistic Expectations for Meal Time Behavior. It takes time for children to master new skills, which includes table manners. Adults need to lay out clear expectations for meal time behaviors and reinforce appropriate behaviors.