During the Holidays Family gatherings can be both lovely and stressful. We have all been there. Sitting at the beautifully adorned dinner table with the whole family politely awaiting the feast. And then it happens. Our child screams, “Yuck!” or “I hate turkey!” Then follows the awkward silence with the unspoken question lingering in the air, “How is she going to handle this?”
Aunt Susan and Cousin Andy pretend not to be listening, as they quickly look down at their plates and take another bite of mashed potatoes, tuning their critical ears to make sure they hear our response. Our parenting is now on display for all to see.
I can hear the unspoken advice now: Either “Food should not be an issue. Let children eat whatever they want.” or “There are starving children in Africa, and kids should eat everything on their plate.”
Can there be a good middle ground to the extremes?
Eating issues are far bigger than a holiday meal and parenting with an audience. Wanting life long healthy living and thankful hearts for our children should be our source of motivation. We can teach our children to eat healthy foods on holidays and everyday. Here are ten practical ways to train our children to eat well and to be thankful for the provision.
To begin any journey of changing family expectations, call a family meeting to discuss what the new guidelines are and the reasons for them. Discuss the reasons for changing their eating habits. Then, be consistent and practice the guidelines you set. Some of the following can be a part of that conversation.
- It is okay to dislike certain foods: We all have things we don’t like. Every year on their birthday, our four children chose 2-3 food items they didn’t have to eat. Each year they had the option to change these foods. This teaches children skills of evaluation. They feel respected and it alleviates potential for resentment toward over-controlling parents. One rule: They were not allowed to choose basic foods we ate daily like lettuce or milk.
One day my husband Don said, “Blair, I’ll give you a dollar if you eat a bite of squash. He took the challenge and the sequence of photos show what happened.
- They will be removed from the table if they make a scene: Let them know if they have a fit or refuse to eat, they will gently and calmly be taken to another room. With loving and gentle tones, tell them their food is waiting for them for when they are ready to eat. Give them a choice: (1) Come back to the table and eat 3 bites of each item on their plate and enjoy being with the family or (2) stay in the room alone. Give them the opportunity to rejoin the family until mealtime is finished. They won’t be offered their food again until the next meal. The key to this working is our consistency, patience and love as they test the new boundaries.
- Eat the things they don’t like first: After choosing their birthday exclusions, they may still resist healthy foods like vegetables. Put these on their plate first and tell them, “When your green beans have been eaten you may have some peaches (or whatever they like most on the table).”
- Make eating fun: My son, Blair didn’t like broccoli, but with his vivid imagination, he turned himself into a Tyrannosaurus Rex and pretended his broccoli were trees. And because that’s what dinosaurs did, he ate the trees. Be creative and plan ahead. Conversations before the meal could include, “Did you know that dinosaurs eat trees. Don’t these broccoli look like trees? Why don’t you pretend you are a dinosaur?”
- Give them choices: When they refuse to eat, give them choices. You can make the good choice pleasant and the bad one unpleasant. “You can eat your peas and get a brownie for dessert or refuse to eat them and go without dessert.” If these milder choices don’t work we may have to resort to, “You can eat your peas and get a brownie or if you choose not to eat your peas for dinner, you can eat them for breakfast.”
- Save their dinner for breakfast: When a strong-willed child refuses to eat dinner despite all our efforts, calmly tell them if they don’t eat, we will save their dinner until breakfast and they won’t get anything else until then—and follow through. At breakfast time, take last night’s unfinished dinner and place it before your hungry child. At some point he/she will eat.
- Give only healthy snacks: I remember big brown eyes staring up at me begging for food as I was preparing dinner. This is the perfect opportunity to give them a snack of vegetables while training their palate to like healthy food. Giving them another choice, you can say, “You may have a carrot (or snap-peas) or you can wait for dinner.”
- Give small portions: This allows them to easily succeed at eating everything on their plate and be proud of themselves. They can ask for seconds when their plate is clean.
- Eliminate snacks if they don’t eat well at meals: They are more likely to eat healthy if they are really hungry. Many times the reason children don’t eat their healthy dinner is because they have had a sweet snack shortly before mealtime and aren’t hungry.
- Be Consistent: When choosing to train our children to eat healthy, we must be consistent everyday, because they are going to test us.
Eating doesn’t have to be a long-term embarrassment and fight. When we handle our children with love and gentleness and change our expectations about eating, we can raise children who go to Family gatherings and graciously eat what is placed before them.
I would love to hear your Practical Eating Ideas and how they have work for your family.