Published on 09/17/09

Make family mealtimes enjoyable

By Diane Bales
University of Georgia

Mealtimes are one of the best opportunities to help children grow and learn. Families can share conversation and time together, while teaching healthy eating habits in a relaxed environment.

Many families are so busy they, unfortunately, don’t set regular times to eat together. Here are some easy steps to set a routine to make family mealtimes possible and enjoyable.

Pick consistent days and times. Reserve the time on your calendar and rearrange other commitments so everyone can be there. If schedules are too busy, start by choosing one or two evenings a week to have dinner as a family.

Eat at the table. Children tend to get distracted easily. Sitting down at the table helps children focus on their food and pay attention to the family conversation. Make a rule that distractions such as television and cell phones are not allowed at the dinner table.

Serve “family-style” whenever possible. Put the food in serving containers on the table, and encourage everyone, including young children, to use serving utensils to put food on their plates. Family-style service may seem like a lot of trouble, but it actually helps children practice motor skills and begins teaching them how to take control of the amount of food they eat.

Teach portions. Many children don’t know what a portion looks like. You can guide children while still allowing them to serve themselves by saying things like, “Take just one piece of chicken for now. If you are still hungry after you eat that chicken, you can have more.” A young child’s portion is smaller than one for a teenager or an adult.

Handle spills casually. Eating with a fork or spoon is a skill that requires practice. Young children are still learning how to control their hand and finger muscles. They might spill or drop food. Putting a plastic mat under your child’s chair can help contain the mess. When spills happen, stay calm. Acknowledge that everyone spills sometimes. Get your child to help clean it up and continue with the meal. Keep a wet cloth handy to make spills less distracting.

Talk with your children. Mealtime is a great chance to share ideas and thoughts and to encourage children’s language development by involving them in conversations. Ask children questions and encourage them to answer. You can also model conversations by including children – even infants and toddlers – in discussions. Even if you and your child are the only ones sharing the meal, be sure to spend some time talking.

Encourage children to try new foods, but don’t force them. Many young children are reluctant to try new foods, and will eat familiar foods first. Help your children ease into accepting new foods step by step. Introduce only one new food at a meal. Pair a food they’ve never tried with one they like. Start with smooth-textured foods like corn, chicken or pears. Cut new food into bite-sized pieces to make them easier to handle. Describe the new food, teach children its name and talk about what it looks like. Encourage them to touch and smell it if they are not ready to taste it yet. Remember that children are more likely to try a new food if they see you enjoying it.

Be realistic about the length of the meal. Young children have very short attention spans. Don’t be surprised if your toddler or four-year-old is finished eating after a few minutes. Encourage children to sit with the family for a few minutes if others are still eating, but allow them to get up and do another activity nearby when they get impatient or squirmy. Having a few simple toys close to the table will enable children to be near the rest of the family while they finish the meal.

Keep mealtime routines consistent. Children’s brains develop best through repetition. Do the same things in the same order every time you eat a meal together. Over time, children will learn what to expect at mealtime. The predictable routine will help them feel comfortable and secure.

You don’t have to serve gourmet food. Even a simple, healthy meal like chicken and rice can be an enjoyable family gathering if you take time to follow a consistent mealtime routine.

(Diane Bales is a human development specialist with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.)

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.