Meal times made happier

Granola with fruit

“What’ll you have for breakfast?” I ask my blurry eyed teenager as she stumbles down the stairs Monday morning.

Need I ask.

It’s the same every day. Peanut Butter Puffs and milk. And maybe half a banana.

Daughter number two meanders down the stairs shortly after. She takes her favourite spot on the couch and reaches for the television converter.

“I’m hungry,” she yells. “Can I have breakfast?”

Again, I need not ask what she’s having. My kids are creatures of habit.

I place two waffles into the toaster and wait for them to pop. Perfect. Not too brown on the outside, not too moist in the centre. I pour a little syrup on top and use the grid on the waffles as a guide when cutting them into small squares and then lovingly place one tiny chocolate chip on each small square. I did once purchase the chocolate chip variety but they were nothing much compared to this decadence. At least she balances her dessert-like breakfast with a glass of milk.

From time to time, my husband will go on a tirade about the empty calories and excessive sugar included in their breakfast, he’ll lecture about the importance of fruit and vegetables, he’ll share his embarrassment about being a health professional and not being able to get his kids to eat a well balanced, healthy breakfast.

I asked Wendy Reingold, Registered Dietitian, in private practice in Thornhill, Ontario, for her thoughts on this. She had a positive spin on the whole breakfast thing. “It’s so great,” she says, “that the kids are having breakfast. There are so many kids that miss breakfast.”

Parents often complain about kids bringing their school lunches back home uneaten. If this happens regularly, it may be wise to ask your child why this is happening. It could be as simple as his being embarrassed by the smell of a tuna fish or egg sandwich. Enquire what others are bringing to school and ask for input. Get the kids involved in preparing their lunches and other meals. Reingold says that if children are given choices (she recommends no more than two) and are included in food preparation (even as simple as mashing the egg), they may be more likely to eat the food.

I recently counselled a family with issues around the dinner table. Not only were the kids finicky eaters, but they laboured so long over their meals, that their mom forbade all talking at the table and imposed a time limit for eating. Unfortunately, this structure created even bigger problems. The kids, aged 7 and 9, began to dread meal times and saw them as stressful. They were no longer able to share stories of the day with one another, but had to sit in stoic silence or be punished. I encouraged the parent to remove these stressors so that everyone could once again view eating together as a pleasurable experience. When it came time to talk about food choices, we concluded that the kids should be part of meal planning for the week. If her son wanted trout for supper and her daughter couldn’t stomach the idea of eating anything with scales, their compromise could be fish sticks for the daughter. Since one vegetable at dinner was a must according to mom, everyone agreed to specific vegetables being palatable and even agreed to at least tasting one new vegetable each week. Once the children felt that they had some say in what was being served, things began to change. Ultimately, they also agreed on a buffet style when food was being served. In other words, instead of mom placing the food on their plates and serving it to them at the table, they preferred the idea of having the platters of food in front of them and serving themselves. Mom agreed that it was okay if they took less than she might have served. Everyone understood that they could come back for me. At last report, neither the timer nor the silence was required to see the meal through. Mom shared that they were even trying more than one new vegetable per week, had begun shopping with her and were scouring recipe books for new meal ideas!! Reingold liked the changes.

“As important as food is,” she says, “at meal times, food should not be the focal point. Eating together should be an opportunity for togetherness and sharing as a family. The socialization piece is so important. If we put so much focus on the food as in “oh you haven’t even touched the green beans yet,” kids can get turned off. As parents we need to provide healthy food choices in a calm, relaxing environment.” Beyond that, with the proper role modeling, kids will take care of the rest.

As well as modeling appropriate food choices and concern for what we put into our bodies at home, children learn about healthy eating at school. By the time they reach high school, most children are aware of what is good for them and not, but may throw caution to the wind and make choices that we are not always happy about. Since you know that they may choose pop over milk, French fries over a baked potato and a donut over a low fat muffin when they’re eating away from home, you may decide to limit temptation at home by purchasing snacks and treats that are healthier. However, keep in mind that if your teenager finds the food choices too restrictive, food can become a power struggle which may lead to more problems. As with younger children, Reingold says that “studies show that 80% of adolescents who help with meal preparation will actually eat the foods that they help to prepare.”

I have heard horror stories of children being force fed or being forced to remain at the table until every morsel has been eaten. This only creates a battle field where there are no winners.

If children are shown rather than preached to, if children are encouraged rather than forced, if children are shown respect for their food choices, they are more likely to make wise choices as they grow.