Laying the foundations for stress-free family mealtimes
Family mealtimes can be stressful; thinking about meals everyone will enjoy, shopping, cooking, the constant demands for snacks, not to mention the frequent whimpers, whines and flat-out refusal to eat once the food is on the table.
There’s no doubt that, some days, feeding the family will be very hard and with young children, especially, it can feel like all you think about is mealtimes. And with little joy, especially when we’re eating only meals we know our children will eat.
But family meals don't have to be this way. Mealtimes can be healthy, happy, stress-free and a way to spend quality family time together. They can and should be fun, sociable affairs, full of laughter and a way to reconnect after a busy day or week.
“How?”, I hear you cry!
Here are my guiding principles for creating healthy, happy and stress-free family mealtimes.
1. Setting boundaries
One of the easiest ways to take some stress away is to reframe our thinking about mealtimes, to stop worrying about how much or little our children are eating and to stop panicking about which foods they will or won’t eat. We know from other areas of our child's behaviour management, that we need to set boundaries and it's the same with mealtimes. We need to set boundaries both for us and for our children around our responsibilities at mealtimes.
We are responsible for when and where our children eat and the food on offer whilst our children are responsible for what and how much they eat. The outcome of this is happier, less stressful mealtimes and being able to assist our children to develop a positive relationship with food.
2. Implement a routine
If there’s a constant request for snacks from your children, set a meal and snack routine to ensure there’s a steady supply of food throughout the day and use this as an opportunity to get a variety of foods into you and your family.
Snack times can be seen as mini meals which include a balance of fruit, vegetables, protein or dairy and carbs which will help keep children fuller for longer and reduce the nagging for food.
3. Cook together
See cooking as an activity you can do with your children, a way of spending quality time with them and helping them to become familiar with ingredients so that they’re more comfortable trying them.
Your cooking activities don’t always need to be about baking or making a complete dish but can be focussed instead on getting dinner on the table quicker later. It could just be as simple, some days, as helping to get ingredients out of the fridge and cupboards or setting the table.
4. Lay the groundwork
There’s more to food than just the eating and the more we can do away from the table to help lay the groundwork for happy mealtimes, the better.
Read books with them that are food focussed, Oliver's Vegetables is a great one, and include foods in age-appropriate play and craft activities too. The play kitchen and teddy bears picnics are great opportunities for talking about food without any pressure and to do some role modelling.
5. Family time
Whenever possible, eat as a family. Sit at the table together and try to have conversations and encourage your children to join in with the social parts of eating.
Renaming family mealtime as 'family time' will take the pressure off and away from the food. See it as your opportunity to come together, catch up on what’s going on in your worlds, have a chat and a laugh. If schedules don’t allow you to eat a meal together, try to sit with your children whilst they eat and model the behaviour you want to encourage.
6. Think about the words you’re using
Without realising, we can put pressure on children because we’re stressing that they’re not eating, haven’t touched a vegetable in days or have only eaten a few mouthfuls.
We can make exploring foods fun and safe - instead of asking them to try it, telling them: 'Eat it!', or saying things like, 'But carrots are your favourites!'. We can encourage them to smell the food, touch it, see what happens if they squash it, or ask them to make a tower, dare them to lick it, give them unusual things to eat with - chopsticks, tiny spoons, giant spoons and tweezers.
7. Put yourself and your needs first
We regularly hear that we need to prioritise ourselves and mealtimes are no different. By looking after our own wellbeing, we can look after our family’s too. If we’re looking after ourselves, we can come to the table calm and if we’re relaxed at the table, our children are more likely to be relaxed too and mealtimes will run a lot more smoothly.
By only preparing and serving the meals that you know your child, or the rest of your family, will eat, you're restricting your own diet, which will make you miserable. When planning your meals, think first about what you want and need to eat and then think about what you can add to the meal to suit others and to ensure there’s a safe food for your fussy eater.
Make and serve one meal for everyone and give yourself a break!
8. Plan ahead
Meal planning is the answer to so many problems. But for those of us juggling more hats than we care to think about, it’s key to survival! Get the family involved in this process so that it isn’t all your responsibility and so that your child feels like they have some control over the decision-making process – they’re more likely to eat the meals when they know what’s coming and have some buy in.
Planning ensures you’re eating a wider range of meals which means you eat better/more healthily and your little one is exposed to a greater variety of foods, which is one of the best ways to both prevent and deal with fussy eating.
Sarah Alder of Kitchen Titbits is a meal planning and family mealtimes expert, transforming mealtimes from stressful to stress-free.
Sarah specialises in working with parents who are tearing their hair out at mealtimes. She helps them to support their fussy eaters to eat a wider variety of foods, put the fun back into food and enjoy mealtimes again.
She also teaches about meal planning as a way of saving time and energy in the kitchen, cutting food bills and reducing food waste, taking the stress away from mealtimes and getting away from the age-old question of what’s for dinner!
To find out more about Sarah, her courses, workshops and online courses, visit her website.
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