THE WASHINGTON POST — When TikTok user Buggystops Kitchen posted a video in July of the individualized menus she gives her children — each sheet offering a few options for breakfast, lunch and dinner that she knows some kids like it – she caused a stir.
Viewers have watched the video over 500,000 times and written over 950 comments reflecting the long-running debate over whether children should eat what is put in front of them or be allowed to choose their food.
Some commentators were horrified: “My children eat what I serve. I don’t run a restaurant; I’m not a short-lived chef,” one wrote. Others were impressed, adding comments such as, “I feel like it’s a win-win. They feel like they’ve (a) been told, you know they’re going to eat it, the choice of what to do is made. Genius.”
On her blog, the mother-of-seven explained that she created the system because she was tired of throwing food away and didn’t like nagging her children to eat meals they did not want. The menus, she wrote, worked like magic.
“No more wasted food. No more tears from being forced to eat food they don’t like or just don’t want to eat. No more feeding animals under the table. No more hassle for me.
But when it comes to feeding children, it doesn’t have to be a situation where “either you totally take care of your children or make them eat no matter what,” says Anne Fishel. , family therapist and associate professor at Harvard, co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes family meals, which decades of research have shown can benefit the physical and psychological health of children .
Feeding a family is a difficult task. And, in some cases, parents must provide different menus for children with food allergies or sensitivities or for those on the autism spectrum. “But for the vast majority of kids, we’re just talking about individual preferences,” Fishel said. “And I think there are ways for families to honor those without being a short-lived cook.”
By finding that middle path, parents can help their children have healthy relationships with food, Fishel said.
Here are some ways to approach mealtimes that can help you strike a good balance.
PRIORITIZE EAT TOGETHER
Fishel acknowledged that the urge to feed children the way they want is understandable.
“Parents want to make their kids happy, and giving them the food they love to eat is a very rewarding way to do that,” she said.
However, one of his biggest concerns in this regard is that preparing individual meals takes time and energy, which can interfere with eating together and sap parents’ energy levels to interact with parents. children at the table.
“Bringing families together is hard enough, even though a lot of people agree that family meals are really important,” acknowledged Blake Jones, an associate professor and developmental psychologist at Brigham Young University, who focuses on children. health problems.
A 2015 review of research on family meals found that the reported frequency of family meals per week ranged from around 33% of meals to around 61%. (There is evidence that the pandemic has increased the frequency of family meals).
Research has found physical and psychological benefits for children whose families dine together.
One study concluded that children and teens who eat with their family three or more times per week have healthier diets and weight than those who share less than three meals per week.
Another determined that frequent family meals improve adolescent mental health.
A review of previous studies suggested that frequent family meals made teens less prone to risky behaviors. Even parents can emotionally benefit from family meals. Eating together doesn’t have to be a long, formal affair.
Research by psychologist and family development expert Barbara Fiese found that the average beneficial family meal only lasted about 18 to 20 minutes.
“It’s a pretty short time to be associated with all of these benefits,” Jones said. “So it’s not just that you eat together. Maybe that’s what you do during the meal.
FOCUS ON COMPETENT NUTRITION
According to dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter, one thing parents should do during family meals is to think long-term.
“When you feed children, the goal is not to give them food today,” Satter said. “That goal is to help them learn lifelong positive eating attitudes and behaviors.”
Satter defines food competence as “a child’s ability to go to a meal and navigate it without panicking, to choose from what is available, and to eat as much or as little of the food as their parents want. have put before him”. their”.
Competent eaters grow up to eat regular meals, eat a variety of foods, and feel relaxed about eating, Satter said.
“They generally have positive attitudes about food, as opposed to this negativity, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t do this or that’.”
Studies also show that they have a high quality diet.
In contrast, when parents indulge a child’s limited palate, “that child grows up to eat the same narrow range of foods they started out with,” Satter said. “Besides, he is afraid of the food that is in the world.” Research has shown that picky eaters don’t eat as healthily and have more social phobias than non-fussy eaters.
Satter advises parents who want to raise competent eaters to follow his Division of Responsibility in Feeding, which says parents are responsible for what, when and where food is provided. The child is responsible for how much and for what he eats.
BE THOUGHT WITHOUT RESTORATION
However, parents should always consider the tastes of the child when providing a meal. “Part of the job of parents, when and where is to consider the child’s limited experience with food,” Satter said.
When a parent plans a menu, they should always include “one or two foods that the child readily accepts or usually eats and enjoys.”
So if a child comes to the table and sees a bunch of unfamiliar food, they’ll also see something they know they like. And if a child is not eating, you ask him to stay with you at the table to enjoy the other benefits of the family dinner.
By serving foods that a child has never encountered before, “you give a child a chance to learn about it, to try it, to see someone else eat it. And that’s how palaces grow,” Fishel said.
What if a child refuses?
“It’s no misery for a child to spend a night not wanting to eat everything offered because there are foods he doesn’t like,” she said.
After all, they might be served something they like another night. “I don’t think a parent should spend a moment feeling guilty for enacting this life lesson.”
And there are ways to recognize individual tastes while getting the message across that “we’re still a family eating together,” Fishel said.
For example, families can serve a meal, such as tacos or mac and cheese, which can be customized with toppings.
LET THE CHILDREN SERVE THEMSELVES
According to a study by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, sharing food from the same serving dish (family style) increased cooperation between friends and strangers.
Although the study did not include families, “it is highly likely that the same principles apply in this context,” Fishbach said.
Beyond cooperation, serving family-style meals offers other benefits. By letting your kids serve themselves, Jones said, rather than giving it to them, “you’re teaching the kid, ‘Okay, get some and then see how you feel, and then, if you want more, you can take it’.” This helps children develop their autonomy and learn to recognize signals of satiety.
Satter also had advice on dessert: “Put a serving of dessert in every place on the table when you set the table. And let everyone eat it whenever they want. Before or during or after the meal. No seconds.
Because when we “use dessert as a lever to get them to eat their vegetables, we teach them to overeat twice: once to eat the vegetables when they don’t want them, and then…to eat dessert when they’re already satisfied. vegetables. »
You are also teaching your children that dessert is the only worthwhile part of the meal.
“Whenever you use a food as a reward, the one you are rewarded with becomes the preferred food.”
DON’T MAKE FOOD THE CENTER PIECE OF FAMILY MEALS
It seems a bit counterintuitive, but family dinner isn’t really about food. Fishel suggests promoting an attitude that says to children, “We’ll have a variety of foods on the table. Eat whatever you want. We won’t talk much about it. We’re going to talk about your days and the news and what we’re going to do this weekend.
Whatever you serve your children, whether it’s the same meal or several individual meals, the focus should be on the atmosphere around the table.
“It’s the kids who feel they can talk and people want to hear what they have to say,” Fishel said. “It’s a warm, welcoming atmosphere that really brings mental health benefits, cognitive benefits, and nutritional benefits.”