Don’t let your fussy eater turn the dinner table into a battle ground. Give these expert strategies a go and bring the fun back to family meal time.
The magic of the family table comes from the conversation and connection between parents and children, but it’s also important to serve nourishing food, model healthy eating habits and avoid food battles.
Childhood health experts say the best advice for improving a child’s diet is simply putting healthy food on the table and sitting down together to eat it.
Here are some strategies for serving delicious, healthy food that everyone will eat:
1. Build your own
Everybody at the table, including parents, has likes and dislikes. You can create different dishes for the meat lovers, vegetarians and picky eaters. Or you can just brace yourself for a nightly food battle. But why not make it easier on everyone and create buffet-style, build-your-own meals?
Start with a basic ingredient and then step aside and let everyone create their own favourite version of the dish. Foods that work well for build-your-own nights are tacos, sandwiches, soups, salads, pizzas and pastas. “If someone doesn’t like tomatoes, they don’t have to go on the tacos,” says Lynn Barendsen, who, with her colleagues at the Family Dinner Project, has created a complete list of build-your-own dinners. “You’re cooking one meal, but people can pick and choose.”
2. Vegetable appetisers
While you’re preparing the meal, make it a habit to set a big plate of vegetable starters on the table for everyone in the family to nibble. Carrots and ranch dressing, roasted bites of cauliflower, broccoli and hummus, or vegetables and guacamole will get gobbled down by your ravenous crew.
This pre-dinner snack will not only relieve the stress of the person preparing the meal, it will buy extra time if one parent is late coming home, and solve the eat-your- vegetables food battle before it even starts.
The most likely time a child will eat carrots or cucumbers is when a parent is still cooking and the kids are really hungry, adds Lynn. “When you sit down, you don’t have to worry about whether they eat the veges because they already had them,” she said.
3. Don’t comment
Once the food is served, limit any food talk to how good it tastes. Don’t make comments about how much or how little someone has put on their plate. Even something as simple as “Just eat a little more of that” could prompt a child to become stubborn and resist the food. “No cajoling. No bribing,” says Anne Fishel. “It makes for tension at the table and it’s counterproductive.”
Anne recommends not talking at all about who’s eating what at the table. “A parent’s job is to choose healthy food, and pick when and where it’s going to be eaten,” she said. “A child’s job is to decide whether and how much to eat”. Beyond that, the conversation around food should be limited.
4. Avoid food rewards
Studies show that children may react negatively when parents pressure them to eat foods, even if the pressure offers a reward. In one study at Pennsylvania State University, researchers asked children to eat vegetables and drink milk, offering them stickers and TV time if they did. Later in the study, the children expressed dislike for the foods they had been rewarded for eating. If you are serving dessert, don’t place any conditions on it.
5. Use smaller plates
Studies show that people eat larger portions when the serving dish is large. Big plates, huge popcorn buckets, tall glasses and deep, round bowls make portions look smaller and prompt us to eat more. Take a look at your dinner plates and other dishes. Shop at thrift stores or antiques stores to find smaller dinner plates that were common 50 years ago.
Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, an award- winning consumer health site with news and features to help readers live well every day. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.