What children eat is important. A balanced diet can be foundational for healthy growth and development. It’s no wonder parents are concerned with what their kids eat. Unfortunately, too much focus on diet can contribute to anxiety surrounding eating and food choices. A careful balance is important.
Instead of nagging kids about their food choices, it’s often best to provide healthy meals and snacks and minimize unhealthy options. If you provide apple slices with cinnamon for snack for your preschooler, then that’s the choice. When your son wants cookies instead you simply say, “This is our snack for now. If you don’t want to eat it then lunch is coming in a bit.”
For lunch you may provide a sandwich with some carrot sticks and celery. If your child complains and wants chips instead, you might say, “This is lunch. Eat whatever parts of it you want. We’ll be having a snack later.”
The natural consequence of not eating is hunger, an excellent motivator. In fact, it’s amazing what kids will actually eat when they’re hungry. You don’t always have to be firm with food choices, but if your child continually chooses chips and cookies instead of eating healthy alternatives then you might want to take a more firm approach. You don’t need a lot of bantering about the subject. Just be firm and matter-of-fact.
Remember that kids eat more at different stages of growth. Furthermore, many children have a narrow range of things they like to eat. You don’t have to cook only what they like. Make a variety of foods but allow children to opt out of eating them. Provide healthy snacks between meals and encourage children to eat healthy.
Parents who force kids to clean their plates often do their children a disservice. In western culture we tend to have problems with obesity and food-related anxiety disorders. You don’t want to contribute to those problems by being hyper-vigilant with food. Unless your child is below the growth curve, then keeping it simple and allowing your child to not eat the choices available is usually the best option.
In many homes, dinnertime is the only time when the family actually gets together. This becomes more pronounced as children get older and schedules become more complicated. It’s unfortunate that many parents overemphasize manners or food choices or even use the table talk as a time to go over the offenses of the day to further discipline children.
All of these things may be necessary or helpful at times, but be careful not to develop a negative pattern around the table. It’s been said that more meals are ruined at the dinner table than at the stove. Coming to the table whether you are hungry or not is important. When you call your child to come and eat and he says, “I’m not hungry,” you may be tempted to allow him to continue to play. But the reality is that mealtimes are a family experience. You want to spend time together and enjoy relationships.
Use mealtimes to share about the day. Talk about things you’ve learned and ask children to talk about their experiences. Children will learn valuable relationship skills like listening, asking questions, talking, and telling stories. Gentle reminders about listening, not interrupting, or letting someone else speak, can go a long way to teach children how to carry on conversations and enjoy others in the process.
Take time to plan the social component of the mealtime. Save stories from the day, jokes or riddles, and think of questions that get your kids talking. Some parents spend a lot of time preparing a meal but don’t prepare at all for the dialogue. That’s a mistake in many homes where the conversation deteriorates rather quickly and relational opportunities are missed.
Children learn from stories. As you share ways you’re growing or incidents that made an impression on your day, children apply them to their own lives. Laughing and being silly can add to a positive sense of family life. When appropriate, share how you have applied God’s Word in practical situations by the way you think or act. This helps children see that spirituality isn’t just a technique, it’s a lifestyle.
Some children make mealtimes a challenge. Hyperactive or overly talkative youngsters can make civilized conversations difficult. Sibling conflict issues spill over into what might otherwise be pleasant conversations. Try to gently move things back on track. Redirect conversation and distract children by your enthusiasm and energy.
Manners are important in order to relate well to others. Learning how to interrupt, how to pass, and how to eat with grace are all important. Teach these lessons over time. Don’t overemphasize socially appropriate techniques at every meal or you’ll end up with a more militant looking mealtime than is helpful. Balance teaching of manners with relationship and watch children grow over time.
If a child needs discipline, then separate them from the table and tell them that they’re welcome to return when they can act appropriately at the table. In the meantime, continue to enjoy conversation and relationship with the others who are there.
God promises us a special dinner at the end of this world. It’s called the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19:9. It’ll be a feast to celebrate our relationship with Christ. You can be sure that that meal will be a special time of enjoying relationships. Mealtimes now are just practice for that special meal we’ll all enjoy. It’s all about relationships, and children are going to enjoy it just like their parents. There will be laughing and telling of stories and simply enjoying the privilege of listening to others. What you are doing now is a reflection of the beauty of the meal that’s yet to come.