A friend of mine tells a story about her family when she was small. Her sister refused to eat green beans. Her father got very angry and said something like, “Think of the starving children in Armenia.” Her sister, in a tiny scared voice, replied, “Let’s send it to them, Daddy.” Unfortunately, he didn’t see the humor in it and sent her to bed without dinner. Forty years later, my friend and her sister are still dealing with guilt and anxiety around food.
How many of us have similar stories of well-meaning parents cajoling us to eat, to belong to the “clean plate club,” to think of the starving children in ______ (you name the place. It seems to differ from family to family). The result of all these good intentions is a generation of people out of touch with their bodies’ hunger signals, still cleaning their plates regardless of whether they need to, or constantly out of control of (or too involved in controlling) their food intake.
Ideally, the dinner table should be a comfortable family time, not a battleground about green beans. How do we teach our children to eat a variety of healthy foods, to try new things, and to be in touch with their own bodies’ needs without damaging their relationship to food for life?
Here are a few ideas that people in my parenting groups have found to be helpful:
- Serve small portions. Let children ask for more rather than be confronted with what to them looks like a mountain of food.
One mom serves “no thank you helpings” — one spoonful of an unfamiliar food to “just taste.” She has found that it takes several exposures to a new food before kids accept it as just part of the family routine.
- Ask kids to think about how hungry they are and serve themselves. That way, they learn to correlate hunger with food amounts.
- If you are going to serve something unfamiliar, make sure that you also have as part of the meal something that you already know the kids like. The idea is to expand their tastes, not to have them go hungry because they aren’t ready for Hungarian goulash, or whatever.
- Involve the children in meal preparation when you can. Kids are more likely to try something they have had a part in making. Make a game out of knowing and using the food pyramid.
- Focus dinnertime on family time rather than on the food. Do things to make it a little special. Candles shouldn’t be reserved only for company. If you have a dining room, use it. Introduce a word game for young kids. Talk about the news with your teens. Think as carefully about what you hope to talk about as you do about what you serve.