Eating Healthy Meals Together

Here at Dinner and a Family, our goal is to get families to eat together around the dinner table, and to enjoy their time together.  But what to eat can be a challenge!  Parents want their kids to eat healthy meals together, and kids want jelly beans!

There are several disadvantages to feeding your children separate meals according to their taste.   Of course it would be exhausting to make 3 different meals for my 3 children.  And I certainly don’t want to eat the most requested meal in my home – chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and Cheetos.  Ewwww!  I want to eat good food, and I want my children to learn to eat good food as well.  But I have the same battle every night as the rest of you.  I spend a lot of time preparing a healthy meal for my family.  I plan it out during the week and then I shop and of course cook dinner at around 5:00 when my kids are trying to get homework done and running around the house scraping knees and needing band aids.  And then after all of that, we sit down at the table and the kids all complain that they don’t like what I have made.  I wonder sometimes if it is worth it.

But research shows that it is worth it.  There are many studies that show that children who eat healthy meals become healthy adults.  Plus the numerous reports of the rise of overweight children in America.  So the question is how do you get your children to eat healthy meals and still make dinner an enjoyable time to spend together?

It is so, so important to start early!  Offer your toddler lots of different types of foods and let them see you eat and enjoy a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Babies usually eat a lot of fruit and vegetable baby foods, but when they start eating table food, is right about the same time that they learn to throw food across the room!  What you eat is going to be a big influence on what your kids like to eat. If you rarely serve vegetables with meals or eat fruit, don’t be surprised if your kids develop the same tastes.  Studies have shown that what children eat is are largely shaped by what parents serve and how often they serve it – even when it is rejected.

So offer your toddler and preschool age child a lot of different foods, even if he is quick to reject new foods, as it can help him learn to like a variety of foods. Remember that ‘if children have repeated opportunities to sample new foods, then at least some of them will be accepted.’ That may mean that you have to offer a small tablespoon size portion of green beans 10-15 times before your child will even try it.

What if you didn’t teach your toddler to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables?  Is it too late?

Of course not, but it does mean that you will probably have to work harder at it!  They won’t seek them out on their own and you will have to be a little more persistent.

One trick that often works for both fruits and vegetables is to find foods that your kids already like to eat, like smoothies, muffins, yogurt, etc., and find recipes that allow you to add fruits or vegetables to them, like banana or zucchini muffins.  One thing my kids love is “alien shakes”.  Alien shakes are just fruit smoothies (bananas, yogurt, milk, and your choice frozen fruit – berries, pineapple, mango) then just add some fresh spinach.  I know this sounds crazy but I swear that you cannot taste the spinach and if you sell it correctly – “alien shake” – they might find a new healthy favorite!

Other helpful tips might be to:

  • let your kids pick the fruits they want to eat when you go shopping
  • mix fruit pieces in with yogurt or serve them with a dip
  • offer a fruit salad, with a mix of watermelon, grapes, strawberries, etc. as a dessert or snack
  • add chopped fruit, especially berries and bananas, to your child’s cereal
  • try dried fruits
  • mix in some chopped fruit with jell-o

Fruit isn’t usually the big problem though. Getting kids to eat their veggies is usually the bigger challenge.

Creative ways to get your kids to eat more vegetables can include camouflaging them in with other foods, like chopping up and mixing vegetables in with pasta sauces, lasagna, casseroles, soup, chili, omelets, etc. or adding veggie toppings to pizza. You can even find recipes for things like banana raisin pancakes, carrot beef meatballs or zucchini cookies, that your kids might enjoy.

It might also help to:

  • offer chopped veggies with a dip, like ranch dressing
  • serve vegetables as a stir-fry
  • let your child help prepare the meal
  • start a vegetable garden at home so your kids can eat the vegetables they grow or visit a farm or farmer’s market.

Getting kids to eat well, and especially eat fruits and vegetables is a challenge for many parents. To help prevent your child from becoming a picky eater, you should:

  • start early by offering a large variety of foods to your toddler
  • make mealtimes fun and don’t try to force your kids to eat things they don’t want
  • look for creative ways to offer your kids fruits and vegetables

It can also help to learn about the serving sizes of fruits and vegetables so that your expectations aren’t too high. For toddlers, a serving of vegetables may be as small as a tablespoon per year of age and a 1/2 piece of fresh fruit. Older kids should eat 1 whole fruit, 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables or 1 cup of raw vegetables to count as a serving.

Most of all, perservere!  Keep offering the same vegetable over and over agian.  Insist that your children at least try the serving of vegetable one time.  In our home, my kids have to eat 3 bites and then if they hate it, they don’t have to finish.  We don’t ever insist that they finish their meals, but they don’t get dessert if it is offered.  Many times, my children have flat out refused dinner.  We have told them that they don’t have to eat (except for their three bites) but they can’t go rummaging through the pantry in hopes of an alternative.  They eat the dinner I have prepared or they don’t eat. As of yet, no one has starved in our home.  There are certainly health exceptions to this but for the most part, that is exactly what that is – an exception.

Eating a healthy meal together is in fact worth every minute of the work that you put into it.  It is worth it in the short term while you are eating together and it is definitely worth it as they inevitably grow up to be healthy adults who want to pass on the same values to their families.


2 Responses to Connecting

  1. heather mcelroy says:

    i love the “alien shake” idea. i never thought to add spinach to a smoothie.

  2. Cassy says:

    There are two things I did when my kids were really little, that worked great to get them to eat a variety of veggies! One was that I filled an empty ice cube tray with bite sized foods that were healthy. It would sit on the little table, and my girls would eat from it throughout the afternoon (sitting down, of course). It was the rule that they always had to sit at a table while eating. I would chop up carrots really small, it would also have raisins, nuts, whole grain crackers, small chunks of cheese, pieces of cooked potato, as so-on. Each ice cube square would have it’s own food. They loved the little compartments. The other thing I did was I would take a spinach leaf (or other green), and wrap a surprise in it. They would have to put the whole package, spinach plus surprise, in their mouths to try and figure out what the surprise was. Sometimes it was an almond, sometimes a raisin, sometimes cheese. That way they didn’t think of it as eating their veggies. It became a game! To this day, they love spinach – but only raw. 🙂

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