Put picky past you: The value of the family meal
More importantly though, when the family eats together, modeling happens. Parent's model table manners, positive (or negative) feelings and interactions around food, as well as important food messages about what is "safe" and "good" to eat. There is speculation that this is how early humans passed on the essential information about what was poisonous or edible: by carefully watching what your parents and your family ate- then only eating those things. This same behavior holds true today. Children watch us and eat what we eat. Conversely often they do not eat what we do not routinely eat. Hence, children that grow up in Korea will routinely eat things like kimchi, while many American children will not go near kimchi. Japanese children (generally) easily accept fish and seaweed, where as these foods seem am impossibility to most families of toddlers or young school age kiddos in the US. Also, a recent research study showed that parents who classify themselves as picky eaters are significantly more likely to have children who are picky eaters. We show our kids what and how to eat and generally they listen. Of course, there are MANY families who are not picky at all- who eat a wide variety of nutrient rich foods and whose kids are still very picky. Sometimes this is related to an underlying diagnosis: reflux, delayed gastric emptying, autism, etc. but sometimes it's not. In some of those instances, I suspect that the family meal may still have played a role in this.
I will preface by saying that because children are SO widely different and complex, I know many will have their own unique reasons for being picky that don't relate at all to anything that we could have controlled as parents. I know. This info is not meant to blame parents. It is meant to empower and heal parents. I want parents of picky eaters to know that children don't want to be picky. It's not easy to be picky. It's frustrating for everyone and as kids get older it's embarrassing and anxiety producing. Kids want to fit it and picky eaters stand out in a negative way when they can't participate in normal social interactions, like parties or eating at a friend's house. Something is perpetuating the picky behaviors. I'd also like to add that picky eating has a lot to do with inherent temperament and personality. Certain babies and kids will grow up to be amazing and adventurous eaters no matter what the circumstance and no matter how they are patented. Even if they never have a family meal and their parents are super picky, they will still grow up to be great eaters. Conversely, there are those babies and children who are picky from the beginning- about everything. They are the ones who, even when you do all the "right" things, these children are still very likely to be fussy and picky. It's these kids (and those who are a bit less picky) that small parenting choices and interactions make a big impact. I suspect that these kiddos would respond the best to things like the family meal. And I actually suspect that these kid's tendency towards picky eating has been reinforced through either lack of family meal or through family meals gone wrong.
The main idea behind a family meal is that everyone eats the same thing. Often times when we first introduce solids we introduce "baby food" then work towards "toddler food" then eventually we try to bring them into our adult meal. But when we feed something different, that's often 1 or 2 years of modeling that we lose at a critical time of learning. It's also setting up the idea that the child gets to eat something different and special (or sometimes whatever they choose). So to change it up on them after several years, can often cause a lot of resistance.
So consider serving one meal from the get go- same or very similar foods for everyone (from the get go- even when your baby is 6 or 7 months old- yes this is possible- make it a snack meal, not dinner and if you are giving puréed applesauce, everyone gets puréed applesauce. Be creative and consistent. Of you're having chicken and veggies roast some veggies and put them on your 6-12 month olds tray however you think he or she can manage them.)
As your child get older and often more picky through toddlerhood- stay consistent at the family meal. No separate, special food for the child. No cooking something else during or afterwards because the child wouldn't eat it. No snacks afterwards until the next mealtime. If your child doesn't eat at that meal, plan the next meal a bit sooner and your child will be more hungry at that one.
Another important tenet of family meals that I mentioned at the beginning of this post is that they are meant to be socially enjoyable. Think of them as a party! The focus is on the conversation and on the joy that comes from relaxing together at the table- not on the quantity of food being consumed or not consumed. Your child can choose not to eat anything at all and you will just ignore this and let him or her participate in the fun conversation or excuse them from the table. At first the child will think he or she has won the lottery. "You're not going to yell at me, pressure me to eat, make me the focus of an uncomfortable interaction??" Or, "You're telling me I can go?!" But I promise you, trust that you're child wants to be near you, interacting with you and the other parent. When fun happens at the table, a child wants to be a part of it. (No video games or tv instead during that time and you have to practice making the meal fun. For example, my dad used to ask us a "special question" at dinner each night and we all looked forward to answering that question and the talking that ensued. If the meal is frustration ridden and uncomfortable, no one will want to stay for that.) If you make meals light and fun, make mealtimes socially enjoyable and stop focusing on the amount your child is eating or not, then they will see that when they go, they are missing the party. They don't get to watch tv or talk with others at the table. They have to entertain themselves and let everyone else enjoy their meal. They do not get new food or a snack. Often times they come back in a few minutes. Or at the next few meals they won't leave the table at all and when your child is sitting at the table, he or she will eventually and often quietly begin to eat. Otherwise, they will not eat but will be more hungry at the next meal. No need to starve him or her- feel free to provide some of your kiddo's favorite foods at the next meal. Just avoid giving alternate foods at the family meal if your child doesn't eat. No subs or requesting special foods at the family meal. Consistency is key. Your child has to know 100% that the rules don't change. When she or he understand this, and stars to want to participate in the family meal, the child can then reap the benefits of parent and other sibling modeling good eating behaviors and trying new foods.
When you get to this place, they family meal also serves as the perfect source of toddler leftover lunches. These are meals that are familiar to your toddler and he or she watched you eat. The food is healthy. You get to reinforce the foods you value and serve as a family. I strongly recommend this practice and I recommend starting early with this- even when your baby is 8 or 9 months old.
Good luck and I'd love to hear about your family meals. What goes well, what are your favorite parts, what goes wrong? Feel free to leave me a comment!