As a practicing pediatrician for more than 20 years, I spend a great deal of time explaining to parents that their child’s eating behavior is completely normal. Usually, parents are reassured by my showing them that their toddler is following the normal growth curve for age. But, if you’re among those parents who are not convinced, you are not alone!
One of the most frequent issues I hear parents raise during their
toddler’s check up is their concern that their child is a picky eater and that mealtime can be a nightmare. “He eats nothing. I just don’t know how he’s gaining any weight at all!”
Many of us are old enough to remember when Dad worked and Mom cared for the house and the children. Family dinners were a daily ritual. But, times have changed, and the dual working parent family is the norm, not the exception. With parents juggling work and family schedules, it’s increasingly challenging for families to spend time together, much less sharing meals together. It seems like families are constantly eating on the run, grabbing take-out, or randomly grazing.
Eating together as a family is critically important from many standpoints. Family meals provide nutritional and social benefits that are so valuable they should be viewed as an essential part of your child’s development and healthy routine. Starting this routine when your baby is an infant not only benefits your baby, but promotes the well-being of your family as well.
What are some of the benefits of sharing family meals?
Here are just a few:
- Children love and need routine. Schedule family meals with your children in advance.
- For infants, it’s a great time to establish a routine of socializing. After all, you’ve been at work all day – you miss your baby and she misses you! As your baby grows, she’ll come to depend on eating meals with the family as an important part of her day – and yours!
- Family meals offer a great opportunity for you to be a role model for your toddler or child to help them develop good table manners.
- Parents tell me this is the time they offer new foods to their children with varying flavors and textures and that their little ones are more inclined to try these foods if they see their parents enjoying them. Children begin to learn to make smart, nutritionally-sound food choices as they grow. You are their first teacher.
- Foods cooked at home are generally more nutritious than what you get outside of the home. Also, home-cooked meals are lower in fat and salt and higher in vitamins and minerals which are essential to your health as well as your child’s.
- Family meals can help prevent obesity. Children who eat with their family tend to be leaner than those who eat alone. This is because they eat less, eat more slowly, and talk more. Another great reason to enjoy a family meal – the wonderful, lively conversation!
- Children are never too old for family meals! Studies have shown that children who ate dinner with their families at least five days a week were better adjusted, had fewer drug and alcohol problems, better relationships with their parents, improved school performance and less depression.
- Keep your meals simple. Even home-cooked or take-out baked chicken, carrot sticks and fresh fruit are healthful. Put some yogurt, salad dressing or other dipping sauce out – kids love to dip veggies or fruit!
- Introduce your toddler to eating with an age-appropriate, safety fork and spoon. Be patient as you help show them how to eat – it should be fun.
- Give your toddlers a choice of what’s on the menu. Young children crave a sense of independence and control, so offer a couple of choices, both of which are acceptable to you. Although toddlers are often picky eaters, mealtime should not be a battle. If your child refuses some or most of dinner, don’t worry – he’ll come back to it later when he’s hungry! And, don’t worry if he won’t go near the peas – just reintroduce them at a later time.
- Go light on the juice! Fluids are fine with or after meals, and milk or water are best. But, they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for solid foods. Juice should be kept to 4-6 ounces per day, unless your doctor advises otherwise.
- Keep distractions to a minimum – turn off that TV and put away the newspaper! Take enough time to enjoy both your food and your children. And remember, it’s normal for your toddler to sit for no more than ten minutes at a time during a meal.
As a father of twin boys in a two-physician family, making time for family meals was a challenge. Both my wife and I structured our professional life around spending time with our children. Family meals were a sacred time. We made every effort to eat together as often as we could.
As busy pediatricians, mealtime with the boys strengthened us as a family and recharged us after a busy day. They loved it as much as we did. It was a time for us to not only talk together, but to listen to them and hear about their day.
My wife’s grandmother used to say, “Listen to them when they’re little and they’ll talk to you when they’re big.” How true! Now that they’re grown, they still treasure our family meals together, and we learn more about their lives from our dinner conversations than we ever could by just asking them on the run!
Remember - Mealtime is family time.
- Phil Goldstein, MD, FAAP
Please post your comments below.