FAMILY NUTRITION – Getting back on track after a summer of fun
By Jennifer MacTavish, RD
As fall approaches, and with it the hope of life returning to some sort of pre-pandemic normalcy, many people are wondering how to get their families back on track with their eating habits.
Since March 2020 many people have been working or schooling from home, with constant access to the kitchen. While some people took the opportunity to learn a new skill (sourdough bread anyone?), others found themselves or their families constantly snacking to help pass the time or for comfort during the dark days of various lockdowns. For some families, the pandemic provided an opportunity to slow things down and reconnect over family meals more often. For others, a tighter food budget may have left them more stressed, trying to stretch every dollar to fill the stomachs of their growing children.
Whatever your experience has been over the past year-anda-half, the fall marks a great opportunity to get re-organized in the kitchen and to take some time to reflect on what has changed in your family that you’d like to keep and what habits have crept in that you’d like to move away from.
While many folks were working on their dining room tables or in very close proximity to the kitchen anyway, we’ve gotten used to the idea of food constantly being at our sides. Now might be a good time to work your way back to a more regular eating pattern that allows time in between regular meals and snacks to take a break from eating, let digestion happen, and permit appetites to build. Grazing patterns, or even filling up on liquids like milk and juice between meals, leave children without much of an appetite. This means there is very low desire or motivation to try new foods or even eat at all during meals. It is one of the most common concerns parents have about their children’s eating.
Hunger really is the secret ingredient to building a child’s dietary variety. Every family will find their own rhythm with this, and often the pattern that works the best for children (and adults alike) is one that includes three meals, with one-to-three small, balanced snacks built in between. Allowing for two to three hours between meals and snacks, in which only water is offered, lets children’s tummies digest the food they’ve consumed, and come to the table hungry for their next meal or snack.
Similarly, skipping meals, or going for prolonged periods without eating during the day, leaves people cranky, lacking the fuel supply required for their brains to think and concentrate at school and work, and causes people to become over-hungry, which can lead to more snacking or over-eating later in the day.
Family routines, including regular meal times, help maintain a sense of normalcy even in difficult times. If you are wondering where to get started with your family’s nutrition, getting back to a routine with your meals and snacks is a great first step.
Perhaps your family picked up some traditions during the pandemic that are worth keeping, such as cooking together or experimenting with new recipes.
Cooking together is a great way to reconnect with your family, to expose kids to new foods, and, of course, teach an important life skill. Getting kids involved in planning meals, shopping, gardening, and helping in the kitchen is a wonderful way to increase their exposure to food. Kids often need repeated but neutral (no pressure) exposure to new foods before they will come to enjoy them as part of their normal dietary variety, so avoid the dreaded “just try a bite.”
These experiences allow children to see, touch, and smell foods they might not yet be ready to put in their mouths. Simple acts like having your kids help you unload the groceries, wash the lettuce, cut the peppers, assemble a salad, or grate carrots for muffins helps your child learn important information about foods – how they look, feel and smell. This helps to build their comfort (and curiosity) for tasting, and eventually eating those
foods. They’re also more likely to try new foods if they have a hand in preparing them.
Many parents worry about their children’s limited dietary variety, and start to get sneaky, hiding foods in other foods (pureeing vegetables to add to muffins or sauces, adding feared foods into smoothies, etc.). While the intention may be good, the consequences can be quite negative. Hiding or sneaking foods into other parts of children’s meals leaves them with feelings of mistrust. Allowing children to come to new or feared foods themselves, through repeated neutral exposures, puts your child in the driver’s seat of becoming an adventurous eater and helps you avoid food battles at the table.
For more ideas on how to involve your children in the kitchen at different ages, check out the resources section at the bottom of this article.
In addition to cooking together, the benefits of eating together are well known, and go beyond nutrition. Children feel a stronger sense of connection with their families when they take time to eat together. When extracurricular activities start to increase, it can be tricky to protect that time, yet we can find creative ways to keep this tradition going. Any meal or snack can be an opportunity to eat together. Taking a little more time in the morning to eat breakfast before hustling everyone off to work and school, having a picnic lunch on a weekend, or planning a family dinner the few nights a week when everyone will be home is worth the effort.
Having screens or other distractions on during mealtimes can take away from that feeling of connectedness. With so much time at home, it’s been easy to eat meals with the TV on or with people on their devices at the table. Eating with distractions takes away from our ability to listen to our internal hunger and satiety cues. Sometimes parents feel that their children will eat better or eat more if they have a device in front of them, however, distractions at the table may actually take away from children’s ability to become competent eaters because they’re disengaged from the process of learning to eat and the benefits of using all of their senses to explore and enjoy foods.
Consider implementing a “no screens at the table” plan, and be sure to be a good role model yourself by putting your own phone away during family meals.
BUILD YOUR FOOD RELATIONSHIP
When working on family eating habits, consider Ellyn Satter’s ‘Division of Responsibility in Feeding’ (www.ellynsatterinstitute.org), which provides a framework for fostering a healthy feeding relationship. When it comes to feeding your family, it is important to stick to your job, and allow children to do their part in eating.
As parents, we can choose what, when and where we are offering food. By establishing a reliable meal and snack structure, offering a variety of foods in a balanced way, and determining where our family will eat, we can set the stage for our children to then do their part in eating.
Children get to decide how much they will eat (if any) of what we have offered. When parents pressure their children to “eat one more bite” or “just try a bite,” children will often resist. Food battles generally don’t end well, and take away from children’s natural curiosity and desire to try new food.
As you start to steer your family’s eating habits back to normal, remember to go slow and be patient with yourself and your family. With time and consistency, we can get our whole family back on track. Being organized in the kitchen can help things to go smoothly and save money. Try stocking your kitchen with healthy foods that are visible and easy to grab, keep fresh fruit in a bowl on the counter, and cut up fruit or vegetables in a clear container that is noticeable when you open the fridge door.
Making a flexible meal plan that is based on your family’s upcoming weekly schedule, and purchasing groceries according to the plan can go a long way in creating a healthy eating pattern. Involving the whole family in meal planning, preparing food, and packing lunches and snacks helps reduce the workload on any one person, and provides the support kids need to do well with their eating.
Finally, keeping a non-dieting approach in your house is critical to helping children develop a positive relationship with food and their bodies. Avoid diet, calorie, and weight talk, and the negative messaging that comes with it. Even very small children pick up on adult’s comments about their bodies. Remember that just like the fruits and vegetables created by nature, we too come in all shapes and sizes. Recognize that all foods fit, and that children and adults alike flourish when they enjoy a variety of foods together.
Jennifer MacTavish is a Registered Dietician with the Brockton & Area Family Health Team.
Learn more about the Family Health Team at www.bafht.com or call to speak to one of the dietitians today.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 edition of Grey-Bruce Kids.