This post is part of the Family Eating series.
How To Get Kids To Eat? This is a very common question I receive in emails from readers, so I thought I would develop a fuller answer than what I usually give via email.
Before I start, as you would know, I am not a nutritionist, doctor or any other type of medical professional. What I am sharing in this post is what we do in our family. You will need to make your own decisions about how you feed your children.
Okay, now onto how I get my kids to eat. To put this in perspective, here is some background about how we eat:
- We eat our evening meal between 5 – 6pm most nights.
- The kids and I will eat our evening meal together Mon – Fri. On weekends all seven of us eat together more often than not.
- Not everyone happily eats every meal every night at our house. I am okay with that. I don’t always like food that is served up to me, it happens.
- I regularly try new meals, always surrounded by evenings with tried and tested meals.
- If all the kids like a meal, I am happy enough to serve it up once a week/fortnight.
- I have learnt a lot about getting kids to eat over the years and have changed what we do many times. I have learnt from my mistakes and listened to the kids.
The below are the key principles we follow regarding meal times and we have pretty good success with getting the kids to eat. Again success doesn’t mean that every child eats every single meal with delight, but it means the kids eat well overall and meal time is not a war zone.
Aim to make meal times enjoyable
I enjoy our mealtimes most of the time! I aim to make it a time for chatting, sharing and discussing our days and future events. The kids know what behvaiour is acceptable and I will discipline the kids if they over step the mark, but I also let some smaller things go too. If I wanted all five of the kids to eat perfectly, I would constantly be telling someone what to do or stop doing.
Aim to not to make food a big issue
Food can become a powerful weapon for kids. I can remember saying to my eldest when he was a toddler “two more bites and that will do” or even “two more bites and then you can have dessert”. I wrote in the Planning With Kids book how this led to our first son enquiring what was for dessert before he made his decision as to whether he would indeed have those two bites.
From the age of about 18 months, the kids either eat their food or they don’t. My role is to provide them with nutritious food, it is up to them to eat it. I don’t believe you can force kids to eat. If however they do not eat their dinner, there is nothing else to eat until breakfast.
We have been doing this since we had two kids eating. When it first happens the younger kids, there is complaining and unhappiness, but they have all soon worked out, that doesn’t make a difference. There is very little complaining now by anyone. They accept this is the way it works and the either eat or don’t. It is incredibly rare for a child to not eat dinner more than one night in a row – it has probably happend only a handful of times in 13 years.
I cook only one main meal
My husband and I eat the same food as the kids. I know many families who cook one meal for the kids and another for the parents, which works for them. I am not up for cooking two evening meals a day, so we all have the same thing and my husbands reheats his meal if need be when he arrives home from work. This works for us.
I think carefully about portion size
It is easy to serve larger portion sizes for kids than what they need. Again I have mentioned this in my book, but when our first son was just starting to eat solids, I attended a seminar on feeding toddlers and picked up some great advice. The maternal health nurse advised that once you have served your child’s meal, halve it and halve it again and this is a much better portion size to serve up for a toddler.
I will at times take food off the kids plate after serving it and before giving it to them. Some evenings, especially when I am hungry, I can be heavy handed with the serving spoon! Too much food on a kids plate can be overwhelming and I have found it can be the initial point of conflict – that is too much!
For the older three kids (14, 12, 9) I will check with them on serving size. Mindful that if it is their favourite meal, I need to provide a reality check on how much they think they can eat.
Everyone has dessert twice a week
We only have dessert twice a week and everyone is able to have it regardless of whether they ate their dinner or not. My aim is for dessert not to become a bargaining chip at meal time and not for the value to placed on dessert to be too high.
Look at what they consume over the whole day
When I first started letting kids not eat their dinner and not offer them anything else until breakfast, I did worry about them starving. Of course starving from missing one meal is not possible! On nights when a child chose not to eat their meal, I would make myself do a mental stock take of what they had eaten for the entire day.
This is also helpful if you have a dinner time veggie avoider. My kids will have plenty of fruit and veg through out the day at morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. I try not to get too hung up on what is left on their dinner plate, but take into account what they have eaten across the day and the previous days.
Involve the kids with meals
As shown in my video last week, the kids have a say in the meal we cook. They are also welcome to help cook the meals and as they get older, I begin teaching them basic cooking skills. Being involved in the process is always helpful in terms of getting them to eat and especially getting them to try new meals.
Limit snack food
The kids know which food they can eat with out asking. Fruit and veg are pretty much okay most of the time, except if if is close to dinner, but things like crackers, the home baked treats etc cannot be eaten without asking first.
Keep improving the way we eat
Our diet is not perfect and I am constantly working on improving the nutrition of our family. I will read about new foods, latest research into food and take on board what I think will work for us. I am prepared to try new things and I explain any changes to our eating habits to the kids and the reasons why I am making the change. As I have been reducing my carb intake, I have also been doing the same but a lesser extent, for the kids.
We still have plenty of room for improving the way we eat, but when I start to fret a little too much about it all, I ask myself the following questions about the kids:
- Are they healthy?
- Do they have a healthy relationship with food?
- Are they sleeping well?
- Do they have energy?
If the answers to these questions are yes, then I stop worrying, for a little bit at least!
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