How to Encourage Positive Meal Times

When my husband was working on his undergraduate degree in Exercise Science at Brigham Young University, he read an article that really struck him during one of his nutrition classes. I remember him coming home and telling me about it. Since we didn't have children at the time, we couldn't really apply it to ourselves but we knew the advice seemed very good so we decided to save it to read in the future.

Fast forward seven years and we sat tonight on the couch, reading and discussing the article he saved long ago (can you even believe we could find it in the garage?). It is a chapter from Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family by Ellyn Satter. WOW. So much goodness in these pages. I know many families struggle with feeding so I wanted to post about what we learned tonight. I am excited to put these things into practice...hopefully some of this can help one of you! I'm itching to check this book out from the library and glean more wisdom from it. There were things we read where we knew we had done a good job and then parts where we knew we needed to make changes. Being a mother is so humbling. I fail at so many things on a daily basis, but I am just glad there are so many resources to help me become better!

Here is a background on where our feeding relationship stands:
  • Our meal times are usually always structured and we all sit around the table together (patting ourselves on the back for this).
  • We don't cater to our children - they are served what we're eating and are never made special kid-food like hot dogs, chicken nuggets, etc (big pat on the back for this).
  • We don't have structured snack times - usually the children are demanding they're hungry, "pan-handling" as Satter calls it - also called on-demand feeding.
    • To be clear, Satter recommends on-demand feeding for infants (which we do), but once they reach the toddler stage, she recommends structured feeding including snack time.
  • There is a lot of frustration around meal time.
  • We insist that the kids try their vegetables or other undesirable foods and get a lot of resistance.
  • The children are always hungry and are super obsessive with food (especially Max - he takes too much interest in food - other children may take very little interest in food on the opposite end of the spectrum).
Here are the things Satter recommends - which are very good for a control-freak like me!

Parents are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding.
  • We control what food comes into the house.
  • We make the meals and present them.
  • We insist children are present at meals.
  • We make meal time a pleasant experience.
  • We teach children good manners at the table.
  • We regulate the timing and content of snacks (no running with food, no food right before dinner, etc).
  • We offer additional wisdom (no holding the refrigerator door open for long periods of time, no candy before dinner, saying "yes, please" and "no, thank you").
Children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.

As a parent, we are NOT responsible for
  • How much our children eat.
  • Whether our children eat.
  • How our children's bodies turn out (thin, short, tall, thick, etc).
It's important to note that children will make good eating decisions when there is a positive environment, when parents are consistently present, and when variety is presented. Vegetables and other foods that children may be picky with need to be presented up to 20 different times before a child will accept them. Continue to put them on the plate regardless of whether or not they touch them. Eventually they will.

I learned so much from this. I tend to really control things - we end up with a lot of meltdowns and tantrums. And the worse part, an over-obsession with food. Part of the chapter really struck me in regards to managing our children's eating. There was a study where parents did a good job of providing structured meals and snacks. However, between meal times, children could graze on snacks and help themselves freely to food. The only way that the children were able to eat what they wanted was to go do it alone when their parents weren't around. This gives the message to the children that the only way they can be their own person is if they get away from their parents. This really hit home to me because we see it every day in our house! I am very controlling about what Max eats and how much, so when that control is not there, he gets into stuff and has an over-obsession with food. It has worried me for some time but I haven't known how to change it or if it was even something I needed to worry about. I want to change things so that Max knows that he can be his own person around his parents. I want to give him his autonomy. I want him to feel respected and feel like he is in control. So, as we try to do in other areas of our parenting, I will provide the boundaries, then let him exercise his own control within those boundaries instead of micro-managing his every move.

Depending on the child and family, Satter says it may take three months for things to really improve and for children to begin to trust the feeding relationship again. I'm crossing my fingers it won't take three months but we are ready for some change and ready for some positive meal times at our house! 

Starting tomorrow, we are going to do the following:
  • Structure snack times. One snack is allowed between breakfast and lunch and one snack is allowed between lunch and dinner. 
  • Let our kids control how much and whether they eat.
  • Provide more variety with food, even if they don't eat it.
I highly recommend anyone read this book if there are issues around meal time. Whether your child is the picky eater who won't touch anything on their plate or if your child is over-obsessed with food, this book seems to have amazing information.

What do meal times look like at your house? Is it positive? Negative? Do you have control issues over food too, like me? Or, are you relaxed? What areas do you do well in and what can you improve? I'm so excited to hear what meal time is like for other families.

Here is another great read about positive parenting...another thing to work on! We've had a lot of trouble lately with not speaking kindly to others, hitting, etc. I grew up in a very negative home and though I try to parent in a positive way, it is very easy for me to let negativity and yelling slip in. Positive reinforcement is SO vitally important so to go along with our meal time changes, we are going to start a "Good Manners" jar - when we see our children being kind and using nice words, they will get to put a pom-pom in a jar. When it's full, they'll get to do something fun of their choosing (like buy a toy, go to a movie, etc).