Inside: The health and social benefits of family meals and how to have peaceful family meals with a toddler.
Family meals with young children, especially toddlers can be oh-so amazingly stressful. There are times when my 4 young children are so noisy I can’t think. There are times when I want to join my screaming toddler on the floor. There are times when I want to throw the food back at my kids and hide in a dark room until they have all gone to bed.
But I don’t.
Family Meals Are Not Always Easy.
I have a toddler who won’t eat and although I am tempted to give up on family meals, I don’t. I work on making our family meals as peaceful as possible (it’s comparative when you have toddler twins) because I know that family meals are a great way to teach my kids healthy eating habits and help them feel connected and loved by their family.
Benefits of Family Meals
Research shows that children who eat family meals:
- Are more likely to eat healthier food.
- Have a decreased risk of being overweight or obese.
- Perform better at school.
- Have less high risk behaviour in their teenage years.
So yes, family meals can be difficult at times, but I think they’re worth the effort.
Why are Family Meals so Great?
Children copy what they see. Ever wondered why nursery always tell you that your really fussy toddler sits down and eats everything without a fuss? The power of doing what all the other toddlers are doing.
The same power can be used at family meal times. Children learn from copying adults, they learn how to behave and how to eat. When they see their parents enjoying a healthy salad, they’ll learn to enjoy a salad. It might not happen overnight. It’s not like you sit down with your 2 year old and suddenly they’re eating lettuce with garlic croutons. However, overtime, they will join in. Or at least try most things.
The Key to Teaching Your Kids Healthy Eating
If you eat healthily, model good behaviour at the dinner table and don’t pressure your kids to eat, they will learn healthy eating habits.
Social Benefits of a Family Meal
The benefits of family meals aren’t just about healthy eating. A family meal is a safe place where kids feel loved and connected. A secure and reliable place to learn communication skills, how to have a conversation and behave together. A fun place to pass on family traditions.
Whatever is happening in their lives, as long as you’re creating loving and peaceful family meals, they’ll feel safe and accepted at the family dinner table.
How to Make Family Meals Work, Even with A Toddler
Good routine. The human body likes routine and you get hungry when at “eating times”. Stick to a routine and your toddler will know when to expect food.
- Get everything ready. The longer kids have to wait, the more fuss they make. (They start drumming on the table, then the knives and forks join in and before you know it they’re shouting and screaming.)
- Sit at a table, no distractions. That means no toys, no books and no mobiles.
- Music. Tranquil music can be a great way to calm the atmosphere.
- The right temperature. Young children have very sensitive skin on the inside of their mouths. Let it sit on the side for a few minutes to cool down.
- Get them involved. Kids, even toddlers can help to cook, set the table and clear up. Learning that cooking is a community activity will help them feel more involved.
- Give them choices. This can be done in all manner of ways. You could let them choose their cutlery or crockery or even what food to eat. It’s easier to give choice in a structured way. “Would you prefer peas or broccoli with dinner?” rather than “What would you like for dinner?” (Which no doubt you won’t have.) Children can choose a meal once a week or once a month. You can let children have choices and help them feel in control without allowing them to dominate the situation.
- Try the 'cucumber quiz’. If dinner is a little delayed, I cut up a cucumber and start a quiz. Simple questions, one for each child, with a reward of a piece of cucumber for a ‘right’ answer. (What is your favourite colour?) Normally cucumber sits forgotten on the side of the plate. At ‘cucumber quiz’ time, they’re fighting over it!
- Let them feed themselves. Children should be in charge of the food that goes into their own mouths.
- Accept the mess.
- No pressure. Serve healthy food and allow your children to decide what and how much they want to eat. Pressuring kids to eat is really stressful and normally leads to them pushing the food further away.
- Make it fun. Tell stories, make up activities, invite friends.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. I do want my kids to sit at the table politely and use their knives and forks appropriately but when I find that all I’m doing is nagging about it, I let it go. They will learn eventually. I hope!
- Don’t pressure them to sit at the table. There are times when my toddlers don’t seem very hungry and don’t even want to sit at the table. Fighting them is only going to make them angry. You can’t control how they behave. You can just tell them that there is food available and if they want it, they are welcome to eat it. I often find my toddler comes to the table a little later and eats his meal without any fuss. I know that when I try to “encourage” him to join us, he’ll just shout and scream and refuse to eat it.
- Be realistic. There are times when despite everything, your toddler is still screaming about apparently nothing. Life with toddlers is stressful, not just meal times.
- Sometimes have Adult Only Meals. We all need a break from time to time and enjoying meals without children will refresh your batteries and give you more energy for family meals with kids.
- Know when to quit. If you’re finding family meal times really stressful, give them a break for a while. When they are just too stressful and no one is enjoying them, try not having them for a bit and come back to them later on.
Family Meals (Even with Toddlers) Are Worth the Effort
There is nothing better than sitting down with your family and enjoying a happy meal together, laughing, smiling, taking pleasure in each other’s company. Life is so busy now and mealtimes are a great way to pause and enjoy just being with your family. Instead of joining my toddler screaming on the kitchen floor, I take a deep breath and sit down to a healthy family meal.