By Katie Jeffrey, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
Last month I focused on the importance of enjoying meals together as a family. Eating together enriches the lives of both parents and children. Family meals are not just about the food! They are a time for family members to share daily achievements and concerns, describe the day’s events, and receive and offer encouragement and advice. Conversation helps build relationships, strengthens family unity and improves communication and social skills. Additionally, meals eaten as a family have been found to be positively linked with better language achievement and academic grades, healthier eating habits, obesity prevention, and fewer risk-taking behaviors (Purdue Univ 2010). Children who eat meals with family members are more courteous and have a greater positive emotional well-being (Baker 2010). These are encouraging reasons to enjoy eating as a family.
If, after reading last month’s article, “Making Family Meal Time a Reality,” your family has made family meals a priority and are now eating more meals together, give every family member a pat on the back for a job well done! I am proud of you! Are you noticing the positive benefits of eating and perhaps preparing meals together? That’s wonderful if you are. If not, keep at it, it may take a few more family meals to see the benefits of eating together.
Does poor behavior sometimes make family meals a struggle or unpleasant? Meals may never be perfect with kids or teenagers. But, they can be enjoyable most of the time if your family establishes meal guidelines. A few simple and fair guidelines will help to make eating together an enjoyable experience.
Here are a few tips to help make mealtime fun and foster healthy eating for life:
1. Allow children to serve themselves as soon as able so they learn how much food is appropriate for them1. A good rule of thumb is to know the size of your stomach. Each person’s stomach is approximately the surface size of both hands, palms up, placed side-by-side. This is roughly the amount of food that should comfortably fill their stomach.
2. At meals and snacks, provide children with age-appropriate portions. A smaller portion with more options leads to independence. Give children a variety of healthy choices at each meal and have them decide how much they will eat. It is important for children to listen to their hunger and satiety (fullness) cues. They have an innate ability to determine how much food they need. Some days they may be hungrier than other days due to a variety of reasons, such as growth, activity level and food eaten previously during the day. If you are concerned about your child eating either too little or too much, monitor their eating behaviors to determine if it is simply a phase or a cause for concern. Children often follow an eating pattern by eating more during a growth spurt and less when they are not growing as quickly.
3. Research has shown that when individuals are served larger portions they tend to eat approximately 30 to 50% more food. As a society, we have become accustomed to larger portions. Therefore, if your child is not ready to serve him or herself, serve smaller, child-sized or age-appropriate portion sizes. Your child can always ask for more if they are still hungry.
4. Avoid being a member of the “clean plate club.” This outdated philosophy may encourage overeating or a food aversion that could lead to weight or overeating problems later in life. Pay attention to their behavior. If they start to play with food, become restless, or tell you that they have had enough, remove the food. Ask them to visit with the family until everyone is finished eating.
5. Establish the rule that all family members remain at the table until everyone is finished eating. This may help to slow everyone’s eating speed and allow each individual to listen to their body’s fullness or “satiety” cues rather than rushing through a meal and opting for seconds regardless of their hunger level1. Remaining at the table even when an individual is finished eating encourages him or her to visit with the family and re-enforces the importance of spending time with family members.
6. Establish mealtime routines, such as eating as a family at the table rather than in front of the television,1 turning off cell phones, iPods, and handheld games, and letting the answering machine pick up phone calls. Make mealtime an uninterrupted family time – that means parents should also follow the same guidelines they have set for their children. Lead by example.
7. Make it a family rule to wait at least 20 minutes to have an after-dinner snack or dessert. It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to signal the brain that it is full. This will help to teach children to listen to their bodies and eat when they are hungry, not out of habit. For example, children may either “save room” for a sweet snack after dinner or opt to eat it even if they are comfortably full because they enjoy the taste. Teach them to eat based on hunger. There does not have to be an after dinner snack every night, because this can teach children that a meal is not complete until something sweet is served.
Occasional treats are fine, and healthier snacks should be offered if children did not eat enough at dinner. Encourage children to prepare their own snacks with no or partial help from you. Healthier options may be:
* a bowl of cereal with fruit,
* fruit with a glass of milk,
* yogurt with berries,
* a banana or an apple with peanut butter,
* a slice of whole wheat toast with peanut butter and banana slices,
* air popped, natural or light butter popcorn,
* chocolate milk or hot chocolate and graham crackers.
8. Family rules concerning eating behaviors are also important for teaching children about healthy eating. Help children to think about building a balanced plate comprised of at least three of the five food groups. Select the healthier options from each of the food groups. Try whole grains and either fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Prepare lean protein sources and enjoy low-fat dairy products. Encourage children to eat a rainbow of colors at each meal. Different colored foods make the meal more appealing, since visual variety complements pleasant taste. A colorful plate is more pleasing to both our sight and taste buds.
Mealtimes help bring families together and are a time to share news, problem solve, teach manners, and enjoy each others company. Establishing family rules at mealtime are essential for teaching children how to behave respectfully, the importance of listening to their hunger and fullness cues, how much food their body requires, and how to build a well-balanced meal. This, in turn, fosters healthy eating behaviors. Making family meals and nutritious eating a family goal will help children (and parents!) adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors that will improve their health and well-being for life. Strive to eat healthy as a family and reap the rewards of eating together and properly fueled bodies and minds!
Baker J. Six Tips That Encourage Your Family to Dine Healthy! Superkids Nutrition. 2010. Retrieved from http://www.superkidsnutrition.com/nutrition_answers/mt_sixtipsfamily.php on April 26, 2010.
Purdue University Center for Families. Promoting Family Meals. Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. 2010. http://www.cfs.purdue.edu/CFF/promotingfamilymeals/