Tips for a Less Stressful Family Dinner With Your Kids

3-5 Years

Learning how to eat is one of the earliest lessons for a child. When it comes to family dinner and mealtimes, parents are the most important teachers, and many of the lessons taught around the table set the course for lifelong healthy eating habits. Since we know it’s not always sunshine and rainbows when it comes to kids, use the tips below to help guide your child’s behaviors and make mealtimes less stressful.

Pressure vs. choice

Although you may be tempted to pull the parenting card and tell your child to just do something rather than give them a choice, that can backfire at mealtimes. Here’s why you may want to opt for choice over pressure:

  • Pressure. Despite every good intention you may have, encouraging your child to clean his plate and finish his fruits and veggies may not end like you planned. Saying things like this and pressuring your child to eat certain foods can actually decrease your child’s enjoyment of those foods and make him a pickier eater.
  • Choice. Instead of pressuring, a better approach is to let children decide when they have had enough. Their bodies will let them know without you telling them. Also, giving kids a choice between two healthy alternatives, such as green beans and carrots, can help increase the chance they’ll eat one.

Food as a reward vs. positive reinforcement

It may seem like an easy fix to promise your child a cookie in exchange for eating some veggies, but in the end you’re creating worse problems. There are other ways to make it work.

  • Food as a reward. It’s no secret kids naturally prefer sweets and desserts over veggies. If you use sugary foods as bait for eating healthy foods, this will only make them like sweets more while still leaving veggies out in the cold.
  • Positive reinforcement. A better route is to pair healthy foods with positive attention. When your child tries a bite of broccoli or a spoonful of spinach, show how proud you are with a hug and kiss (not a candy kiss!).

Preparing special meals vs. modeling healthy eating habits

Mealtime shouldn’t turn you into a short-order cook, preparing everyone a different meal. Family dinnertime should mean one meal is made for everyone.

  • Preparing special meals. If children know they can have whatever special alternative they want at the drop of a hat, why would they eat what the rest of the family is eating? If you make a custom meal every time, children will likely not learn to like the foods eaten by the rest of the family.
  • Modeling healthy eating habits. We all know children like to copy things they see other people doing. So, if moms, dads and caregivers “walk the walk” by eating healthy foods themselves, that will increase a child’s willingness to try them.

Plated portions vs. self-serving

Although you may be tempted to fill up your child’s plate the way you think it should look, you may be setting them up for trouble down the road.

  • Plated portions. When parents decide how much food to put on a plate, they tend to serve portions that are too big. This can cause children to eat too much and increase their risk for obesity. It’s no secret that childhood obesity is a problem in the U.S. The CDC reports that 1 in 5 school-age children is obese.
  • Self-serving. This is a better option because there are a lot of perks for children who dish out their own portions. They not only develop motor skills by holding a spoon and feeding themselves, but they also develop confidence. Children learn to tell when they’re hungry and when they’re full instead of someone else making that decision for them.

Every family’s mealtime may take its own unique form, but following these tips can make family dinnertime a bit more picture perfect and lessen those mealtime meltdowns!