+ Well Nourished | Healthy Eating Habits for Kids

The Well Nourished Child – Family Meals Matter

Nourishing children is a topic dear to my heart … and as such, one I am going to have to break down into little bite-size pieces to cover.  Welcome to my first post in a series called ‘The Well Nourished Child.’  After many years of treating children, and then raising my own as well as socialising with many children, I have come to realise several trends in the development of poor eating habits amongst children.   Poor health and nutrition levels in children is worrisome – how is it that we have well fed, but malnourished children in our developed country?  This post is where I tackle the issue of childhood nutrition and how to develop healthy eating habits in children.  Please help me shape the content by commenting and asking questions.  Enjoy.

Family meals matter – in ways that you may have never considered.
I believe there are many aspects to feeding children well and avoiding the endemic food fussiness that places so much stress, on so many families.  As every child and family are different, I am going to start with the basics, and in subsequent posts, address the details.  I really hope that my approach doesn’t appear preachy – I don’t have all of the answers but I hopefully have some useful suggestions. So before I delve into the nitty-gritty of this topic, I need to convey the single most important thing required to develop a healthy relationship between your child and the food they eat…

To begin with…
I am going to ask all parents to consider their food philosophy?  What role has food in your family?  Is dinner a time to relax, enjoy a meal together and share the day’s events; or are meal times a battlefield with children and adults eating at different times, in front of the television, or children holding parents to ransom with fussiness?  If it’s the latter, then you need to read on.

Be a role model
Eating food is so much more than a nutritional or biological necessity.  Historically, eating was not only about nourishment but desire, pleasure and a link to the family culture and the social or celebratory aspects of one’s life.
Role modelling the enjoyment of eating a healthy meal to children begins with parents.  If you are not eating with your children, then this is the first and most important change that you need to make.  Please make a commitment to eating your meal in a relaxed environment.  Yes, I understand that ‘relaxed’ and ‘children’ don’t often go hand in hand…

So when all is not going to plan?
Disruptions during dinner can be minimised by –
1) Avoiding any distractions like television or toys at the table.
2) Make sure your children are hungry.  If they’ve been given a snack too late in the day and they have no appetite, then dinner won’t be appealing (and they’ll fuss twice as much).  My general rule is no snacks at least 2 hours before meal times.  If my children are moaning for food whilst I’m preparing it, then I often give them a little of what I’m preparing.  For example, if I’m cutting carrots, then I will hand over a piece of raw carrot.  If they baulk at it, then they are obviously not that hungry!
3)  If chaos starts to erupt during dinner, try diversions first.  Initiate conversation about topics of interest to your child.  Discuss how great the food tastes, what your favourite part is – genuinely engage in the pleasure of sharing a meal (just no bad acting please)!  My family often have competitions trying to guess the ingredients in the meal I’ve made.  This is a great tool to develop food awareness in children.
4) Like any part of child rearing, children need boundaries, even at meal times.  In our house, it may seem old fashioned, but my kids do not leave the table without asking.  If we are not onto this I find they are up and down like yoyo’s, distracting one another and a relaxing dinner just goes out the window.  So yes, there is some discipline involved in meal times and like any form of discipline, persistence pays off.
5) Please try not to stress at the dinner table – I will post soon on what to do when kids don’t want to eat what you’ve made.  This seems to be one of the biggest stressors for parents.  I understand how frustrating this is though the way you deal with fussiness will either perpetuate it or resolve it. Another big topic to cover!

Why do family meals matter?
Sharing mealtimes with your children will positively impact on all of your eating experiences and can dramatically improve the health of the whole family.   Children who eat, as many meals as circumstances allow at a table with their family, are more open to trying new foods and develop a healthy relationship with food.  A Harvard study confirmed that children having dinner as a family most days were also more likely to consume more fruit and vegetables and generally have a higher intake of nutrients.  Another study proposed that sharing just three meals a week, reduced the odds of children becoming overweight adults by 12 percent.
Once more, the health benefits extend beyond the physical.  Dining together as a family is often the time we socialise and converse with our loved ones.  As parents, we not only demonstrate the values of healthy eating (hopefully) but teach social values, table manners and the art of conversation.  This is so simple but so very important for the health of the family unit.  Studies have confirmed that sharing meals through the teen years will reduce the likelihood of the development of eating disorders and depression, as well as children being less likely to smoke, drink alcohol or try illicit drugs.

So try to share at least dinner as a family.  Most of the families I’ve worked with who’ve had issues with fussiness have often resolved these issues by simply sharing dining experiences with their children.  It’s important that you are sharing the same meals, and finding even just a little genuine pleasure in the experience.  Don’t expect fusspots to come around immediately, persist and I promise they will find the same pleasure in eating healthy food as you do.

Do you have any tips or advice for developing healthy eating habits with kids or a bunting question?  We’d love you to share or ask by posting a comment below.

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  • Lucy

    Fantastic post. So very true!

  • Great post G, I have your expertise to thank and keen to get new ideas…bring it on!!

  • I love your pic of the family digging in, a mistake I made when the kids were little was feed them first and us last..sounds nice to sit with your husband and have some down time, but its taken quite a bit of work for the kids to enjoy our food, still working at it, we’re winning thanks to G and all your great advice, your passion and expertise has to be shared..btw, what was for dinner that night?

    • A Sunday roast with two very tired and un co-operative children. The most difficult photo so far! Don’t they say never work with children or animals and I’ve tackled both in photos this week!

  • My little one is just starting to be at the point where she’s easily distracted at the table.
    But is not a fussy eater AT ALL.
    My problem is that her father doesn’t get home in time to eat with her/us at dinner time.
    So I have to decide to either eat with her or eat with him. Hoping I don’t crete a divide by having to do one or the other. Perhaps I’ll split the week between them?
    What would you suggest.

    • Just do the best you can and at the very least sit down and talk or interact with her. Even children are social creatures and it’s no fun eating alone. You could consider just having a small plate of the same as what she’s eating (and then a small dinner with your husband later). Any other opportunities during the week, breakfast, lunch or weekends, share a family meal if possible. Hope this helps, G x

  • I just want to share a story. My very close friend has a 7 month old who is discovering some first tastes. Her mum was telling me that she gave her, for the first time a piece of steamed broccoli. Her bub sucked on it, screwed her face up and looked up at her mum. Thankfully my dear friend noticed her reaction and had the sense to pick up a piece of broccoli she was cutting up for her own dinner and munch on it herself. Watching her mum intently, her bub proceeded to devour her own broccoli. Even at this young age, it is critical to role model healthy eating.

  • Jane

    Do you know what I think the 3 times tasting works, several times I’ve made a new dinner for the family, kids haven’t really taken to it, so I make it again and they think its ok, make it again, then finally I get the..mum that was really nice..:) Mate..kids are set to test you..:) G, any sense in my theory?

    • I am tenacious and never give up on my kids. I accept that they have preferences, and that certain foods, they genuinely dislike – no worries. But if I see a succession of objections, I find another way and I don’t ever give up. Both my kids wouldn’t touch salad greens for the first three years of their lives. Every time we had salad, I’d put a few leaves on their plates. For three years Jesse would pick them up, frown and toss them back saying ‘I don’t like flowers’. Now (age 5), he goes back for seconds and salad is his preference. Glad I persisted, cause I love my salads!
      PS – I LOVE the saying ‘Insanity runs in the family – you get it from your kids!’ As good as my kids are with food they are always testing me. Can be draining! Gx

  • Kylie

    Looking forward to your other ideas on how to get kids (2 and 4) eating healthy and the same as us. Started getting them to eat the number of veges as their age in order to get ‘desert’ (yogurt). Mr 4 is now eating 4 pieces of carrot, plus corn which does not count as he eats it 🙂 Mr 2, nearly 3 has not had yogurt in about a month. Use to eat all his veg till the last 6mths now just the ocassional piece. All veges get put on their plates every night, a bit wasteful but still trying… Mr 4 also eats NO fruit and is fine to miss out on morning tea if its fruit.
    Anyways you asked for feedback, henc this rant, so really looking forward to lots of tips on kids eating and staying healthy and well.

    • Thanks so much for your input and support. From the response I’ve already had, I know your not alone with kids and veges/fruit. I have plenty of ideas which I will cover over the next few months. In the mean time don’t give up and don’t let the kids know it stresses you that they don’t eat what you’d like them too (often easier said than done I know!). It took 3 years of patiently serving up leafy greens to my two before they accepted them. Hopefully you will find little snippets of information in my posts to help you along the way. G x

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  • Kirsten

    After the usual stressful dinner affair where my 4 year old daughter said her chicken was too mushy and then 2 seconds later too chewy, I read your article in Haven mag and then your website. My husband works too late to eat dinner with us so have always fed the children before. I confess their meal times consist of me washing up stuff at the kitchen sink while pleading with them to eat their meal, come back to the table, bribing with dessert ect ect ect. Not at all relaxing for anyone I expect. So thanks for your advice on serving a small portion to eat with the children. I will endeavour to make meal times more enjoyable from now on. Just when I want to throw in the towel on trying to get my kids to eat healthier options they surprise me. After 4 year old declared she couldn’t eat her mushy/chewy chicken she helped me cut up and ate half a nashi pear that we bought on a shopping trip for different foods today! So it is all worth it in the end.

    • Thanks Kristen for your wonderful comment. Please never give up on them and I’m so glad you are trying to eat a small meal with them. Also on weekends, share a cooked breakfast or a lunch that they perhaps contribute a little in creating. These small things have the biggest impact on kids. My kids who both have amazing eating habits, still occasionally reject something. Actually tonight my 5 yr old son refused his mushrooms – but that won’t stop me from serving them. It took me 3 years to get him to eat salad leaves which he now absolutely loves – if I’d have given up, he still wouldn’t eat them and I’d know no different. Good luck and just shout if you need any more tips, G x

  • Fel

    My sister just pointed me in the direction of this site and I’m so glad she did. What wonderful articles and recipes, Georgia!

    Just thought I’d share a couple of observations regarding my “children” who are almost-19 (twin sons) and 15.

    All of them ate healthy food until they went to school. I don’t thnk they knew white bread existed before then! My daughter in particular loved avocadoes and olives from the time she was about one.

    Unfortunately all three children became fussier as they got older and it’s only in recent years that they’ve broadened their tastes. Two now enjoy cooking and eat very healthy diets, including lots of veggies. We eat a lot of curries and stir fries at our place!

    My other son is addicted to wheat and exists mainly on a diet of 2-minute noodles, bread and shop-bought meat pies, despite lots of healthy food being kept in the house. I suspect he has a gluten sensitivity but getting him to accept this at this stage is, I suspect, going to prove impossible.

    Anyhow, apart from not giving up etc, we found it was useful to serve meals that allowed the children to serve themselves as much as possible. They like the independence of choosing their own portions according to how hungry they are and it also helps teach good social skills (‘please pass the pasta’, ‘would you like me to pass you the potatoes’, etc). We also found that ‘fun foods’ like tacos which kids construct themselves seemed to appeal more, although of course they’re much messier!

    When the weather was good, we ate outside as much as possible. This was pleasant for all concerned and the mess didn’t matter so much – I just shook the table cloth off in the garden and let the bird clean up!

    • Thanks Fel, glad you found me too. I was a kid raised on very healthy foods and went through a ‘junk’ food phase as a teenager. I think if the foundations for family meals and a love of whole foods are solid, they will always come around.
      I also very much agree with your suggestion for ‘buffet’ style eating and definitely advocate this for fussy eaters. Kids are less fussy in cultures where they eat in this style and they can see, smell and self serve their food. It is empowering for them to be able to choose and create a plate of food. Thanks so much for sharing, G x

    • Thanks Fel, glad you found me too. I was a kid raised on very healthy foods and went through a ‘junk’ food phase as a teenager. I think if the foundations for family meals and a love of whole foods are solid, they will always come around.
      I also very much agree with your suggestion for ‘buffet’ style eating and definitely advocate this for fussy eaters. Kids are less fussy in cultures where they eat in this style and they can see, smell and self serve their food. It is empowering for them to be able to choose and create a plate of food. Thanks so much for sharing, G x

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  • Milinda Rodziewicz

    I was a fussy eater as a child and family meal times were stressful, I remember being made to eat brussell sprouts, which to me back then was the equivalent of being forced to eat dirt, between tears I would dry reach and try to choke down the sprouts with the threat of severe punishment if I didn’t. I felt powerless,afraid and didn’t understand why my parents would so forcefully insist that I eat “dirt”! This, I believe impacted my relationship with food into adulthood where, until recently, I would use food to stuff down my emotions, to comfort myself, to reward myself and to punish myself. Being a parent I realise now that my parents were well intentioned just the way they went about “helping” me was a little misguided! The gift from this awareness is also that I knew I needed to deal with my fussy child very differently, So I had to get creative and fortunately my little boy shares my active imagination and from the age of 2 (now 7) we began making up stories about the food we were eating to engage his interest in the fruits and vegetables on his plate enough to voluntarily put them in his mouth. It has worked so well for us that I am currently publishing a book with one of our stories. I am a huge advocate for the early development of a healthy relationship with food as a foundation for a nourishing life. I still struggle at times with consistency as this job of healthy offerings at meal times is relentless, and there is so much distraction, so I love that you have taken the time to write out these wonderful tips to make it easier to bring my attention back to what is important to me and my family! I am hearing and appreciating the “never give up on them” food philosophy. Thankyou so much Georgia xxx.

    • Thanks for your contribution Milinda. Yes it is so important to keep eating a positive and nurturing experience. I’m a firm advocate of ‘marketing’ food to kids in a creative way. It is a wonderful way to engage their interest for sure so good on you for appealing to your sons imagination and creativity. Would love to see your book once it’s done, it sounds wonderful. G x

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