Whether they’re just starting out with solids or already in school, mealtimes can be a source of stress for many parents. Be it concern around weight, fussy eating tendencies or general upset around food, this article discusses how to implement the foundations to building happy, healthy eaters and achieving stress-free mealtimes.
Understand your role
This idea might seem obvious, but the importance of understanding your responsibilities when it comes to feeding is key to working towards peaceful mealtimes. Not because parents are typically unaware of their role, but because they are typically unaware of what is not their role!
Applying the evidence-based model of eating; ‘Satter’s Division of Responsibility’1, parent and child have different roles when it comes to mealtimes. When these are understood and respected, children are more able to develop a healthy relationship with food and achieve a balanced diet.
The Division of Responsibility is the brainchild of Ellyn Satter, a US-based Registered Dietitian, and it is built around the idea that parents are responsible for feeding their child, but the child is responsible for eating. In other words, “you[…]take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide”1.
Parenting by the division of responsibility means trusting that if you fulfil your responsibilities your child will fulfil theirs. The latter relying on the understanding that we’ve inherent hunger and fullness cues, and that it is the parent’s job to nurture a child’s ability to be led by these when it comes to food.
Being clear of what is and isn’t on your to do list, and being content in the knowledge that you’ve done your job, means you can come to the table calm and relaxed which is integral to your child doing the same!
The “where” and “when”
Children benefit from having a structured meal and snack time routine. Consistent nourishment in this way ensures they feel safe, confident food will always be available and sets their expectations.
Meal & snack frequency is dependent on a child’s age, but given growth & energy demands for younger children aiming for 3 meals and 2-3 snacks is a good starting point. As children get older, the frequency may reduce as a result of their schedule or simply their preference for larger meals and fewer snacks. It can take some learning, and will change over time, so always reflect and make adjustments as you see fit – trial and error is OK!
Ideally, at least one meal per day is eaten together and meals & snacks are served at the dining table. Sitting together encourages enjoyment of mealtimes and is an opportunity to connect. In this vein, avoid focus on what is and isn’t eaten at mealtimes or using mealtimes to discuss bad behaviour, and create a calm and relaxed environment with no distractions (such as the television or toys).
Children should be expected to be present at the dining table, but not feel pressure to eat. Pressure, such as “you can have dessert if you eat your broccoli” means the reward food becomes more desirable and food becomes about controlling behaviours rather than satiating appetites. The latter is what we want to teach children.
It’s important your family’s routine is right for you. You’ve individual demands on your time, and responsibilities aside from eating, that need to be accommodated. Making sure the family are fed is a priority, but having some flexibility is also essential for life!
From a nutritional perspective, a balanced diet is one that includes foods from the five key food groups;
- Carbohydrates (e.g. bread, pasta and potatoes)
- Proteins (e.g. meat, fish, beans and lentils)
- Fats (e.g. butter, oil)
- Fruits & vegetables
- Dairy (e.g. milk, cheese and yoghurt).
Ideally, per day, a child will have roughly 5 portions of carbohydrates and fruits & vegetables (3 veggies & 2 fruits), 3 or 2 portions of protein (more if non-meat & fish eaters), 3 portions of dairy and some fat. However, life happens and every day can be different! It’s often more helpful to focus on including a variety from all food groups, and look at intake across the week rather than day. This way, if your child is having a very carbohydrate-heavy day you can think about including more protein or dairy in the days to come.
Making these foods appealing (both in terms of appearance and taste) as well as available is all part of your role in bringing food to the table, and brings us to another key component of a healthy diet; enjoyment!
Alongside concern around nutritional adequacy of the diet and nourishment of our body, we need to consider the role of foods in nourishing our mind & soul. Enabling children to learn the importance of food aside from nutrition, such as food’s role in social connection and cultural learning, can be achieved by including all foods on the menu and maintaining some flexibility in your meal & snack routine.
All foods might mean offering chocolate and sweets within meals & snacks, without restriction or judgement, so your child will learn that these foods are available and not to be placed on a pedestal. Additionally, flexibility around your routine might mean accommodating the unexpected request for ice cream at Grandma’s because the opportunity to build memories around enjoyment of these foods is key.
Trust them, so they can!
To really be at ease at mealtimes, it’s necessary to truly trust their ability to know how much to eat.
The most powerful tool your child has to eating well and having a healthy relationship with food is their body. Guiding them to be led by this, rather than teaching them to ignore it through control, is our job as parents.
When trusted, our body has all the wiring to tell us when and what to eat. Unfortunately, our culture teaches us that the body is not to be trusted. That we need external influences (e.g. food restrictions or rules) to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If we can nurture our child’s inherent ability to listen to their body, we are building the foundations for a healthy relationship with food for life.
Here are a few examples of how this might look in practice:
- Encourage them to check-in with their body e.g. “how does your tummy feel, are you hungry / full?” or “How does your food taste?”. Teaching mindful eating in this way builds positive practices for life.
- Take a neutral approach to all foods by avoiding labels such as “good” / “bad” or “healthy” / “unhealthy”. This places a moral value on the food, so that a child might eat the food to be good or bad, rather than because they are hungry for it.
- Acknowledge, don’t correct, their recognition of hunger. For example, if they say they’re hungry between meals & snacks you might say “I understand you feel hungry, perhaps we can have a starter with dinner?” rather than “No, you can’t be hungry you had a snack not long ago”. Saying “no” or dismissing a child’s request for food when hungry because we feel they’ve “had enough” tells them that their body is wrong and they can’t trust it.
- Don’t restrict foods. Food restriction goes beyond just not allowing certain foods, and can occur from using food as rewards or practicing coercive behaviours to encourage behaviour change e.g. “you can have a biscuit if you do X”. Instead of listening to their body’s needs when eating the food, the fear of deprivation leads to choosing, and potentially overeating, the food despite not being hungry for it.
As previously mentioned, structure and boundaries are still integral to enabling your child to have a healthy approach to mealtimes. We don’t always have to say “Yes” to their requests! What’s important, is how we say “no” and whether our rationale for saying “no” is fuelled by appropriate concerns (e.g. we won’t have enough food left for others or they won’t be hungry for their dinner) or inappropriate concerns (e.g. chocolate is “bad” and they could become addicted).
Show them how
Children are observers, constantly learning from those around them, so modelling is key to building a healthy relationship with food and body in your little one.
Fundamental to this is confidence in your own ability to respect and nourish your body. Sometimes, this can require some work of our own, and taking a step back to ‘put our mask on first’ can often be a good first step in addressing stressful mealtimes at home. This requires self-compassion and remembering there is no ‘right’ way. Demonstrating to children both how to have a positive relationship with food and our bodies, as well as how we can hold our hands up and get it wrong sometimes, is equally important.
Too often we place pressure on ourselves to get it perfect when it comes to our children’s eating behaviours, which often translates to pressure on them. But there is no such thing as perfect. A healthy relationship with food isn’t just about them eating all their vegetables! Taking time to understand and fulfil the parental role at mealtimes, as set out in this article, means you’ve done your part. Take pressure off of yourself, and them, and you’ll hopefully be enjoying stress-free mealtimes in no time!