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Family mealtimesby Shaila Saint, M.Ed.

Fall is here, which means it’s time to shake off the summertime cobwebs, and slowly begin to re-establish the rituals and routines of the new school year. And if your household is anything like ours, this will definitely include ridding ourselves of the summer junk food fare and re-establishing healthy eating habits and regular family mealtimes.

Research shows that children who consistently eat dinner with their families do better in school, develop better lifelong eating habits and are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. Family mealtimes also becomes a great opportunity to reconnect with each other about the day.

But although this may sound wonderful in theory, we parents know that the challenges always come in the practice (which is why it’s such a common topic of discussion in my mindful parenting classes). For example, what happens when when our three year-old takes two bites of this healthy meal we so lovingly prepared and then gets up to go play? Or when our nine year-old yells, “Yuck, I hate this!” In other words, how do we put our mealtime vision into practice?

The first place to start, as always, is knowing our children’s needs and temperaments and our own family values and boundaries. For example, is our three year-old really hungry or did she just have a snack not long ago? Is she naturally active, and typically just needs to move after a few minutes, regardless of what is being served? As far as the nine year-old, what is allowed and not allowed to be said during mealtimes, based upon your values? And what are the rules/ boundaries you want to establish around trying new things?

One of my favorite authors to help us establish a healthy eating philosophy is the nutritionist Ellyn Satter, whose basic tenet is that eating is a division of responsibility between children and parents. The parent is responsible for what is eaten, when it is eaten and where it is eaten. This includes deciding what food is prepared, providing regular meals and snacks, making mealtimes a pleasant experience, and helping children learn about food and mealtime behavior.

The child is responsible for how much is eaten and whether to eat. Satter contends that if we as parents do our job, then children will do their job including eating the amount they need, increasing the variety of food they eat, and learning to be joyful and appropriate in eating.

Satter’s books also reinforce the concept that if families sit down together and parents take responsibility for deciding what is served, we are less likely to turn into short order cooks, where different things are made for different people. This approach has helped me send the message that just as my boys have the choice of deciding how much to eat, they also have the choice to wait until the next meal, as this is what is being served now. No separate meals.

As the boys have gotten older, we have also developed a routine where everyone chooses a meal once a week, and sometimes help to shop for and prepare the meals as well. These guidelines have enabled all of us to become more open to a variety of things we otherwise may not have tried, and it also helps them learn lifelong skills like planning for and cooking meals.

Finally, Satter suggests that instead of looking at our children’s food and nutritional intake on a daily basis (which we know can vary depending on schedule, mood, and other factors) we look at it over the course of an entire week. This can really take the pressure off trying to make every mealtime nutritionally sound. If we know there are times, like on a busy weekend, when more junk food was consumed, we can decide to serve more fruits and veggies in the course of the next few days to balance it out.

It’s what I call “The Very Hungry Caterpillar philosophy” towards healthy family eating. Any of you who have read this Eric Carle book will recognize the overall message, that food, like other pleasures
and necessities in life, should be enjoyed and appreciated, with both moderation and awareness.

So just as the caterpillar in the book eats the nice green leaf on the Sunday after his Saturday junk food binge, whenever anyone in our family comes back from an event where we have overeaten, I try to discuss how we probably had too much cake/soda/ In-n-Out burgers, and that’s why we have this stomachache/headache/ fatigue.

We try not to judge food as good or bad, as I don’t want my boys looking at any type of food as the much sought after “forbidden fruit”, but I also hope they will develop an awareness of what they are eating and what the consequences are for their bodies and well-being. My long term hope is that the boys will make healthy eating a life choice because they see the benefits of it, and not just because I am making them do it now.

Overall, like anything else, the more mindful we are about the vision we have regarding our children’s relationship with food and their understanding of healthy eating, the more we can hopefully increase the pleasure and enjoyment of our family mealtime experiences during this new school year, and beyond — Bon Appetit!