Children’s eating behaviours come from watching their parents. So it’s important to set an example to your children early on by eating a balanced and varied diet. And, by creating a pleasant atmosphere in which to eat, allowing your children to be involved in deciding what they eat, and setting a few ground rules for behaviour at the table, you lay the foundation for enjoyable and healthy eating.
Inculcate family values at mealtimes
Mealtime at the family dinner table is a crucial time for children to learn good eating behaviours. Be considerate, share, wait for one another and let everyone have their say – children learn social behaviour particularly well from situations like these. Table manners come from watching the parents too. Agree on some ground rules which apply to everybody, for example:
- We wash our hands before eating
- We sit together at the table
- We only start eating when everyone is at the table
- We don’t play with our food
- Everyone eats from their own plate
- We don’t talk with our mouths full
- Drinking water during the meal is not only allowed, it’s positively encouraged
- We stay at the table until everyone has finished eating
- We don’t rush our food, we eat slowly
- Everyone helps out with laying the table, clearing up and doing the dishes
Make dinner and lunches fun!
To enjoy eating and drinking, the atmosphere at the table is just as important as the meal itself. The TV, radio, mobile phones, newspapers and toys are distractions and don’t encourage conversation between family members. Your child should be able to eat in peace. Only then will they be able to realise when they are full and have eaten enough. Of course, conversation and laughter should be encouraged; the dining table is a meeting place after all. Try, though, to put off discussing awkward topics such as poor marks at school until later.
As often as possible, make a special effort to lay the table so that everything looks good. Even small children can help with this. A nice tablecloth, colourful napkins, candles and flowers bring fun to the table. Food items served attractively can get little ones excited about the meal.
Serve pulao and warm fresh chappatis in a casserole, rather than serving these in traditional metal utensils. On days when you are serving continental cuisine, slices of bread can be in a bread basket accompanied by cheese arranged on a plate. This spread look more appetising than if all of these are simply placed on the table in wrappers.
Encourage responsible eating habits
In times gone by, children were expected to be obedient and disciplined, and this was true at mealtimes too. We are all familiar with phrases such as “He’ll eat what’s on the table!” and “You do what the grown-ups say!” Today, educationalists are making the case for more independence and personal responsibility – and this applies to eating behaviours as well. The ultimate goal is that one day, our children will make the choice themselves to eat healthy foods.
So stay calm at the table and don’t get into discussions about food if your child refuses to eat. Otherwise, your child will carry on trying to act out power struggles at the table. Encourage them to try different foods, but don’t insist on it. However, you should always continue to offer food which has been refused. Your child may one day try it – tastes can change over time, after all.
Don’t force your child to eat everything on the plate. If you do, over time they will come to ignore their inner signals and continue to eat even though they are no longer hungry. Small children usually know exactly when they are hungry or full.
Help your little ones grow up, one meal at a time!
The first steps in independent eating can cause a lot of mess and demand patience and time from parents. If time is limited, let your child be involved when the meals being prepared are relatively easy. Even small children can manage to spread some cream cheese on a slice of bread, for example, and there shouldn’t be a lot of cleaning up afterwards.
Drinks don’t always have to be given in a drinking bottle. Let your children drink from sippers and glasses every once in a while, which will encourage independence.