Here are a few tips about creating a positive eating environment that will help you nurture more competent and nutritious eaters:
- Consume more family meals at home. This means preparing and serving home-cooked meals at the the dinner table. Mealtime offers an opportunity for families to connect and an occasion for parents/caregivers to provide one of the things that children desire most --their attention! Parents, caregivers, and older siblings or peers also serve as very influential role models when it comes to a young child's food intake. What better way to teach your child about eating more healthfully than doing so yourself with him/her? In fact, research suggests that children who consume more family dinners tend to have higher quality diets than those who do not. Their diets include more vegetables, fruits, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and less saturated and trans fat, fried foods, and soft drinks.
- Minimize mealtime distractions. This means turn the t.v., radio, or other technology off during mealtime. In addition, researchers have detected an association between television viewing during family dinners and poorer diet quality among adolescents and serving fewer vegetable and fruits at mealtime in preschoolers.
- Create an enjoyable but structured mealtime. This is not a good time to duke it out with the child over his/her intake. Trying to coerce or pressure a child to eat certain foods or more than s/he wants has actually been shown to do the exact opposite and could cause children to prefer those foods less. It can also teach children to listen to external rather than internal cues to eating. On the other hand, using certain foods as a reward also backfires by causing an increased preference for those foods, which are usually quite tasty but less nutritious. And restricting access to certain foods has been shown to increase a child's preference for that food. Because you do have their attention, mealtime also serves as a wonderful opportunity to teach children about appropriate mealtime behavior. In order to establish healthful eating behaviors, it is important to set boundaries on undesirable behaviors during meals and snacks without creating a battle zone. This may only disrupt the child's eating and possibly result in the child losing interest in the meal altogether. Finally, expect that your child will possibly want to explore his/her food not only by looking at, smelling, and tasting it but also by feeling, mushing, and smearing it. This tactile experience allows children to become comfortable with food as young children are often leery of new foods. So as long as you can see that s/he is truly becoming acquainted with the food rather than making a mess for attention, remaining relaxed will be your best bet. Just keep plenty of paper towels or dish towels nearby!