This month is National Nutrition Month, a time when good nutrition and health are emphasized for all Americans. The theme Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right focuses on enjoyment as a key element to nutritious meals. While parents around the country make way for yogurt and fruit instead of ice cream and candy, many will encounter struggles and conflict at the table. It’s one thing to know what to feed your kids, it’s another to be successful at it. As a dietitian myself, I know this struggle.
I asked some of the nation’s best-known dietitians for their nutrition advice for keeping health, happiness and joy wrapped around mealtime. Here’s what they (and I) have to say:
Mealtime is more than food
As a long time proponent of family meals and the connection that can be felt around food and table, I encourage families to embrace the idea that mealtime is much more than the food served or eaten. While getting a healthy meal on the table is important, so is creating a loving, positive, engaged environment. Don’t sacrifice the potential connection, closeness and memories that can be made, in the name of perfect eating or the ideal menu.
Ease into Autonomy
Jessica Levinson, blogger at Nutritioulicious and mom of 2 year-old twins is working through the typical toddler stage of picky eating and food jags. Her nutrition advice: “Kids want to exert their independence in many ways, and giving them the opportunity to choose what they eat is one way to let them. Just be careful to set some boundaries so they pick a healthful option. Give them two choices for a meal or snack, both of which you would be happy for them to have.”
One way to execute more autonomy at the table is to serve meals family-style, something you can start early on. Connie Evers, pediatric dietitian and author of Nutrition for Kids suggests passing at least one or two dishes around the table, starting when kids are 3 or 4. “Even Head Start and other early childhood programs with “best practices” do this because kids who have autonomy are more likely to eat more variety as well as learn to self regulate their intake,” she reminds us. That’s good, solid nutrition advice, Connie!
Don’t go it alone
It’s quite deflating to make a great meal after a long, hard day and have your kids poo-poo it when they sit down. One way to battle this scenario is to get kids involved in dinner. “Decide on one or two recipes to make and take the kids to the store with you to get the ingredients. Have them, as much as they are able, help you prepare the meal,” suggests Elizabeth Ward, mom of teenagers and author of MyPlate for Moms and Expect the Best Pregnancy. “When they are vested in it, they are more likely to eat dinner without any hassle.”
“Make sure children understand that joining adults at mealtime is a privilege,” says Natalia Stasenko, owner of Tribeca Nutrition, RD blogger and mom of two. “This improves mealtime behavior and everyone has a better chance to enjoy the meal.” Insisting on manners, help with setting the table, and kitchen cleanup makes mealtime a family affair.
“Once food is on the table, no more talk about food, especially pointing out who’s eating or not eating certain foods,” says Evers. “Get the conversation going and ask everyone to share the one best thing that happened in their day. Adults have to participate too. It steers family talk in a positive direction instead of complaints or whining.”
Make food attractive and tasty
Research tells us that when food tastes good and has an appealing appearance, kids are more likely to eat it. “I always have a bottle of extra virgin olive oil on the table, says Stasenko. “It makes vegetables and whole grains more delicious and nutritious,” she says, “but the key is moderation. A little drizzle on a plate of brown rice or broccoli is ok, but adding too much is no good for flavor or waistlines.”
Let go of the “Have To’s”
The “Have-To’s” often come from our own upbringing at mealtime, or pressure from outside sources. They are often unproductive, and sometimes cause even more problems.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, blogger at Real Mom Nutrition abolished the “one bite rule” from her dinner table several years ago when she saw that it was completely backfiring with her younger son. “Unlike my older son who would happily comply, my younger son was reacting to the rule by becoming angry and (even more) stubborn about his food. So now I offer everything and may gently suggest the boys try something–if it’s a new food I’ll describe it and why they might like it or what it’s similar to–but there is zero pressure at the table. I keep offering new foods and trust someday they will come around. In the meantime, there’s no negativity or nagging at dinnertime. The table is a happy place.”
The truth is, we all struggle to get a healthy meal on the table. We all have disaster dinners when someone is melting down, arguing or rejecting a fabulous meal. This may be the best nutrition advice of all: kids don’t remember what you gave them to eat or the health quality of it. But they do remember how they felt at meals.
So tell me, how do you create joy and health at your meal table?