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How Can Eating with Our Kids Improve Kids' Happiness?

Do Mealtimes With Your Kids Work For You?

Do you enjoy mealtimes together as a family, do you even have time to sit together, are you happy with the food choices you make and feel you have good variety and balance, is eating with your kids an enjoyable experience?

The knock on effect of eating together isn't just that kids usually eat more healthily research has shown there's a whole host of other benefits, including reduced stress, good mental health, improved grades, saving money, better family relationships and greater happiness, more here.

Its not always easy though for us to eat together, life is busy with work, business and activities and maybe our kids aren't great eaters, are driving us mad and we don't actually want to sit with them as it's stressful! 

All kids go through stages of 'fussing' over food and it's during these times that we may unitentionally reinforce it, so they end up with longer term picky eating habits. I once had a friend who for years at every meal ate only marmite sandwiches, luckily he survived and made it to adulthood.


I've spoken to a number of parents whose kids eat well and their reasons for this resonate with mine, so I've created this blog with the intention it gives some fresh ideas to parents finding mealtimes stressful and who would like to sit together and enjoy it more.   It's not a 'How To' blog it's a 'How I' and what has worked for us. 

I've been teaching for 20 years and during lunchbreaks have seen many school kids pushing their food around their plates, pulling pained expressions that we are poisoning them with carrots, exclaiming the sauce is yucky, and the mashed potato is weird and makes them feel sick. They find it hard to control their cutlery and can't wait to get away from the table and nor can the lunchtime staff who pace around with their cloths, waiting for the next year groups to take their places on the benches.

If you Don't Eat Your Peas You Can't Have Your Pudding

Once in school I discovered a child had hidden the food he didn't want on his friend's plate, I felt sad that he felt pressured to do this. Often adults with the best intentions feel that kids 'should' eat all their food and it becomes another negotiation situation - 'If you eat your peas you can have your pudding,  two more mouthfuls and you can go out to play' and the kids become agitated around their food and the adults anxious and controlling. Is it possible to be more relaxed about eating if we've already created an issue over it?

How can we Create Autonomous Happy Eaters?

Underlying all I have written is looking for opportunities to give autonomy to our children. Think - can I allow my child to make the decision, is their a place for choice here?  By allowing our child more autonomy we give them some space to be and to take ownership of their eating. By including them in our family food decisions we can significantly relax our control and boundaries and we may discover our children become more relaxed across other areas of their lives, so these values are transferable.

Positive Role Models 

Along the way, I've been lucky to inherit a number of step sisters and brothers and a wonderful sister in law, all with children older than mine. I've observed their highs and lows and model what works well for them and this gives me confidence too to make mistakes, try things out and know that it all works out when you trust and expect it to. I think as parents we lack this connection with other role models and often feel isolated trying to work things out for ourselves, whilst being bombarded and confused by all the advice out there, including this!  

Eating Together

As often as possible, when my kids were babies I ate with them.  This also included snacks and drinks, so I experienced hunger at the same time as them. We'd sit down at around 5.00pm for our tea and then I'd probably eat another meal later too.  To start with I did mush and puree their baby food.  I even went on holiday once with my steamer and ice-cube trays to freeze bloody butternut squash and sweet potato, no way was my child having a jar or packet. Then the second came and I was bored of steaming, the novelty and excitement had worn off, I didn't care what anyone else thought and I was more realistic. My second child pretty much ate the same food as us from 6 months minus the salt, she made a complete mess yet it was fun and sociable and she didn't turn much down.

Throughout their childhood we've continued to eat together and now they are older we still sit at the table together at least once a day. It might be  breakfast before school and if clubs aren't on we'll eat together at teatime too which often falls anytime between 5.00pm and 7.00pm.  Life is busier in new ways now with more time spent on screens, hobbies, and playing with their friends up the road.   My husband usually returns from work at 9.30pm,  so on the days he is home we all eat breakfast and an evening meal together and catch up. 

Make Table Connection & Conversation the Priority

When they were babies I never did the 'chocho' train thing with the fork in my hand, infact I rarely had the fork in my hand it was always in theirs or they used their fingers. They were never rewarded with pudding if they all their food. I also have a strong aversion to sticker reward charts - and have studied lots of motivational theories over the past 25 years, following on from my studies in psychology and education, that align with this wayward thinking -  if they didn't eat I just let it go without a fuss or eyebrow raise. If they did eat I did the same, I wasn't attached to any outcome. I enjoyed being at the table with them, food wasn't the priority, table conversation and connection was.

Variety 

Our food is varied with different textures and colours. Some days the children eat it all, others they just pick, often it depends on if they've had a snack too close to teatime or guzzled on juice. I have a jug of water on the table at teatimes as I find juice/squash fills them too much and reduces their appetite and then they are 'starving' an hour later!

Serving Suggestions 

I usually put food into serving bowls at the table, so they can just help themselves to what they fancy and measure their own portions too. There might also be bread & butter, cheese, crackers and salad on offer.

A Picky Phase

When they are going through picky phases, I still put the food out in the bowls and just let them be and go with the flow, it's there if they want it. If there are foods they've not enjoyed before these continue to be put out until eventually they tuck in.

Meal planning 

We all sit down on Sundays together and go through our calendars and planners, we often write down meals we would all like for the week too, these are a balance of freshly prepared and shop bought.

Cooking Together

I cooked a lot when they were little, I was busy running around after them, counting down to their next nap times  and creatively underwhelmed, so I used to get excited about planning meals and went to bed reading cookery books. Then I moved onto growing vegetables and knew most potato varieties, now it's other random projects.

I  encouraged the children to join in with cooking as often as possible, such as squeezing oranges, grating cheese and learning how to handle knives to chop.  They soon learned how to make scrambled eggs, toast and open a tin of baked beans. They know how the oven and grill work and if I am out they will cook something for themselves and if I'm really lucky something for me too. We're working on washing up.  I'm not home in the days so much now as I returned to working more,  so there are a couple of quick pasta and pie dishes each week for an easy life. 

Shopping Together

Since they were very young they've created their own shopping lists. In the early days this really made learning to read and write meaningful, their pictures and words didn't need to make sense it was just part of the process. They'd run along the aisles on their own to find things and again this gave them a sense of autonomy and shopping was always fun, we also gave opportunities to pay with real money as often as possible so they began to understand the value of it.  They still do get involved with shopping and pack the bags with me and key in my pin number at the checkout. They also enjoy spending their own money on tat from the toy and sweet sections. When we get home they unload and unpack into the fridge and cupboards too, surprisingly without a fuss, it's actually fun doing this together.

At most stages of the shop to table chain they are involved and engaged.

Snacks

They go through stages of eating crap, and I don't cook from fresh each night. It's when I become aware of this that I put out healthier snacks  as well to compensate such as nuts, dates, chopped apple, cubed cheese, falafels, raisins, grapes, oatcakes, ricecakes topped with humus, chopped peppers, celery, carrots etc. We do have crisps and chocolate in the cupboards which they and I would always choose first so I  provide a 'balance' of choices.

Where Does Our Food Come From?

Many kids don't know where food comes from.  We've been priviledged to grow vegetables at our allotment for the past 12 years, so the kids have been able to sow, grow and eat from scratch. 

If you don't have access to a garden or the opportunity to plant a few seeds maybe see if you can visit a friend who does, an allotment, garden centre or working farm. Most schools do have gardening projects, however I would say it can be rather tokenistic and dependent on the enthusiasm of the staff member in charge. My kids' PTFA is very engaged with the school gardens, so it may be your school has similar or you start up a gardening club yourself!  Look also at food labels with them and world maps to plot which country food has come from and watch Youtube clips, here's a clip for starters.

My son and I getting down with the potatoes on our allotment in 2007

I'd really enjoy hearing from you and find out what inspires your children to eat well and as it would be great to share it with children,  schools and parents. I obviously haven't covered everything here, and hope it gives you some alternative ideas to try out.  

Jane Tyson

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