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Make Family Mealtime More Pleasant

Healthy, Relaxed, and Child-Friendly Meals
-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian

As a new parent, your days are probably pretty stressful. You care for your little one, get the older kids off to school, run errands, keep the household running smoothly, and maintain your career. At the end of a hard day, you just want to relax and spend some quality time with your family.

But if you're like most busy parents, this is nothing more than wishful thinking. As the house fills up again at night, there's noise, tantrums, and disorganization, which seem to last until everyone falls asleep. Mealtime, whether it's breakfast together or a family dinner, doesn't have to be as stressful as the rest of your day. Here are some tips to handle picky-eaters, set an example of healthy eating (which children learn from their parents), and make your meals together a more positive experience:
  • Try to serve food in a comfortable, relaxed, and unhurried atmosphere.

  • Encourage play BEFORE a meal.

  • Encourage a child's participation in meal preparation (measuring, stirring, decorating, cutting and arranging).

  • Food should be warm or cool, (not hot or cold); a child's mouth is more sensitive than an adult's.

  • Flavors should be mild, not spicy; a child has more taste buds than an adult

  • If child is able, give her a small, mini-shopping list to look for a few items on the lower shelves. Make sure the foods are nutritious and easy to handle.

  • If you want to avoid waste, serve smaller portions. Don't encourage overeating or fussy eaters by forcing a child to eat everything on the plate.

  • Let your child learn to feed her or himself. Be patient. To ease the mess, put newspaper under the chair and have a towel ready to wipe up spills.

  • Serve food with child-sized plates and cups.
    • If possible, plan rest or quiet time before meals. A tired or overly excited child may be less hungry at mealtimes.

    • When introducing a new food, try serving it at the same time as a favorite food.

    • Make pre-meal handwashing a pleasant event. Allow time for the child to enjoy the splash of soap and water. A quick, forced washing, particularly after the food is served, may make a child too upset to eat well at the meal.

    • Set a good example. If other people at the table enjoy a variety of foods, your child will learn by copying what you do.

    • If your child appears to have lost interest in the meal, or to dawdle, give him/her a reasonable time to eat (20-30 minutes) then quietly but firmly remove the food. Most children will eat when they are hungry. Do not force the issue.

    • Likes and dislikes may appear suddenly. Be casual about these new food notions. If no one pays special attention to these quirks, they will soon be outgrown.

    • Do not coax, play games, or force your child to eat. You are not teaching good food habits. Make a wide variety of nutritious foods available to your child, and then let your child decide what to eat.

    • Small children prefer to eat with their fingers. Give them small sandwiches, raw veggies, meat cut into bite sizes, fruits and cheese cut into small pieces, and crackers spread with peanut butter or cottage cheese.

    • Be casual about desserts, and make them a part of the total meal plan when they are served. Placing special attention on desserts, or using them as rewards, only makes them more desirable than other foods.

    • Let your child be the judge of how much to eat. Appetite may vary from one meal to another, and from day to day. Never make an issue of food acceptance. You provide the nutritious choices?then let the child choose among them.

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Member Comments About this Article
"I think even forcing your child to eat three bites of a food is a bad idea! I always serve a new food with something that is a favorite. Then I give regular sized portions of everything. If they would like to have seconds of the favorite thing, then they need to finnish their firsts. I have had kids pass, on having second then which I think it fine. If they were really hungry they would have eaten the food. But if they just being a little greedy about the favorite food, rather than being hungry ..." -- JCSBAYBEE
"When I was a kid my parents instigated a "no-thank-you portion" rule, similar to a PP's three-bite rule: you got a very small portion (two or three bites, really) of what you didn't want to eat (usually a vegetable lol) and you had to eat ALL of it to get more of the foods you did like, or dessert, or a special treat. Looking back, it was great because I discovered some of my favorite foods that way. Of course, I also discovered some of my least favorite foods (I *still* don't like brussel spr..." -- DCLOVE0912
"My 3-year-old is a picky eater. Sometimes. He likes most every thing I offer, just not all of the time. We have the least struggle when he has some say-so in his meal - "Do you want peas or carrots with your chicken nuggets?" But, it doesn't work everytime. Sometimes only cereal will do." -- SWEETMOONBOOTS
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About The Author
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. She teaches prenatal classes and counsels individuals, helping women eat right and stay fit before, during and after their pregnancies.
Becky Hand


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