What should a family mealtime look like? How can I create happy and healthy mealtimes for my child?
This week’s episode of Tube to Table discusses the principals behind building a positive and happy mealtime environment for your child. These mealtime foundations are relevant for children with a feeding tube, children with a feeding aversion, or families who are looking to improve their family mealtimes. Responsive mealtimes are mealtimes that encourage togetherness between family members, facilitate self-regulation, and are known to set the stage for a life-long healthy relationship with food. The family table is an important place to pay attention to and make improvements because it has been shown that what happens at the table sets the stage for eating habits later in life.
What is my role at the table?
As we have discussed in past episodes, it is important to establish the appropriate roles and responsibilities at your family mealtime. Ellyn Satter developed the Division of Responsibility (which describes the different roles of the parent and child at mealtimes.
This can become more complex as it is important to pay attention to what children are capable of and make sure that you are finding a balance by making sure they are safe, but also not “catering” to make sure they eat at a mealtime. When working to build your child’s relationship with food, you do not have to LOSE your role as a parent.
To learn more about the division of responsibility and dive into the roles during mealtimes, check out our recent blog post here.
What do we talk about?
When a parent is concerned about what their child is eating, it is extremely hard not to talk about it all the time. We spoke last week about going out to dinner with friends and how it is not natural to talk about food all the time. Keep this in mind when you are having a mealtime with your family. Mealtimes can be hard, especially when you are thinking about what/how much your child is going to eat. It is OKAY to talk a little about the food (how it tastes, what it reminds you of), it is NOT OKAY to talk about what someone is choosing to eat or how much they are eating. The family table is a time where you are supposed to talk about your day, worries, excitements, and successes.
What does pressure look like?
It is important to allow your child to recognize what their body needs, even if it is not always “how much” you want them to eat. It is crucial to minimize pressure at mealtimes. What does this mean? It means to not use words that would encourage your child to take another bite, finish their plate, or open their mouth for food. The research shows that external pressure takes away the child’s ability to listen to their own body. By allowing your child to listen to their internal cues, you are protecting their relationship with food.
What about “good” and “bad” foods?
The research shows us that when we use labels such as “good”, “bad”, “healthy”, we are interfering with a child’s ability to listen to what their body is telling them about food. Children should be able to get their energy needs met independently and it is important that if a certain food makes them feel a different way, they start to recognize those subtle differences in their body. If they are constantly hearing labels of what a food is “supposed” to be, then it gets in the way of them being independent.
What if I want my child to eat “healthy” foods?
As you start to make decisions about what your children eat, it is important to look at the research that shows forbidding foods often backfires and children need to be exposed to all different foods. Of course, this means with what is culturally expected in your family. You can still control what foods are in your house or what foods your family eats together.
Labels extend beyond food, this also extends to your feelings about your body and the feelings you have about what you eat. Children can pick up on feelings of guilt or when they hear negative body language.
How much is enough?
When mealtimes are hard, an average or large portion size can feel scary and intimidating. Often, parents and therapists overestimate that portion size for a child. When children that have any type of selectivity or are tube-fed are given a large or average portion size, it can often feel like they have a huge mountain to climb.
When a child can choose the food they want, food becomes meaningful. When food is meaningful, it helps with their long-term relationship with food. For more information about portion sizes, check out our guest appearance on the Comfort Food Podcast a few weeks ago!
What should the focus be?
The focus of mealtimes should not be on the food, but on togetherness and the social opportunity to meet as a family. Mealtimes should feel mindful and not a hectic time. Of course, life happens, and it is okay if not every meal is perfect. Do not put too much pressure on yourself as a parent to have a “perfect” family mealtime every night. Your child is going to remember the positive association of togetherness about the meal, rather than what was served. It is okay if you are on the go, at a baseball game, running late, there is no such thing as a perfect mealtime. Remember the foundations that we discuss in this episode here and your child will have a memory of a positive, fun, and social mealtime with their family!
“A family mealtime should look like the family that is having it.” – Heidi Moreland