By Megan McQueen
Fall feels like a good time to reset our family routines. We are adjusting to new school schedules and still flush with delicious summer produce.
There have been times that my kids have been less than enthusiastic about the food I have made. There are days that I don’t have the time to devote to making all our food from scratch. In an effort to please all the different tastes in my home, our budget, and our schedule, I decided to research how I could improve our lives in the kitchen.
I am not a trained nutritionist or medical professional, so please consult your doctor and nutritionist if you want specific recommendations.
Involve the kids
Many children love to be involved in the “real work” of making food. Researchers at Ohio State University and Cornell University found that kids are five times more likely to eat salad after growing it themselves. Kids of all ages can help prepare food in the kitchen. Younger kids can help mix and measure.
When my kids were young, a friend advised me to invite them to choose a healthy meal for our family each week that they helped prepare. This routine led to many conversations about what we need on our plates to be healthy. When my kids were young, we often used Mollie Katzen’s cookbooks for children with picture step-by-step directions. Now, my children can cook their favorite meals independently.
Over the years, this has taken much work on my partner’s and my part. The extra time, mess, and energy are considerations. Maybe weekly kid-made meals will not work for your family, but monthly might. Younger kids are usually excited to participate in this vital time of day. Older kids may take cooking classes and use online resources such as Food Hero to learn more about cooking and ingredients. The dance parties and laughing while cooking together have been well worth the extra work for us. This time together in the kitchen has provided us with opportunities to discuss issues around food and health, as well as time spent side-by-side when my kids open up about their days.
Add, not subtract
When looking into what to feed my family, I am overwhelmed with “shoulds.” There are lists of things I should (and should not) be buying at the store. I found advice on what, when, and how we should eat. Instead of a shame-inducing post of things we should not be doing, I’m sharing the helpful “addition advice.” I will not tell you to subtract foods from your plates but consider what we can add.
Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, CDN, encourages us to think about how we can add more of what we need (nutrient-dense food) to our plates. When putting out cereal bowls for my kids, I can cut up some bananas or throw in a handful of blueberries to add flavor and nutrition. Adding a bit of lettuce or spinach to lunch sandwiches can be an easy addition too.
Sitting down together daily to eat is a goal with significant benefits. We all tend to eat more nutrients (adults are setting examples of eating our greens). We can connect about our days and talk through events, building our emotional resilience. We are building oral language and vocabulary skills.
Meals together seem magical. When we are busier, we are less likely to focus on how much or little food we eat and when we’re satisfied. Specialists at Johns Hopkins suggest watching our infants and toddlers for hunger cues and re-building them in our children by slowing down during meals and snacks. They recommend telling children and teens to “eat until they’re full.” They also suggest that families can check in before eating and determine how hungry they are on a scale of 1-10 and during meals how full they are on the 1-10 scale. By practicing this, we teach kids to recognize their physical feelings of hunger and fullness and to listen to their bodies.
Researcher Dan Buettner studies societies with a high number of long-living adults. He found people in Okinawa follow the ancient mantra “hara hachi bu,” which reminds them to stop eating when they are 80% full.
Take the long view
These suggestions may feel overwhelming at times. Some of these tips may fall to the wayside when extracurricular or work schedules become too demanding. Slowing down and prioritizing relationships with my family helps me remember not to tie myself to our routines too tightly. Sometimes the most helpful response is to live through this phase with ease. There are days my kids (and I) overeat sugary foods and do not eat enough vegetables. Still, we remember that over a week, we can balance our plates and not let one day worry us too much. Our schedules sometimes require eating separately, but we often try to connect as a family during a meal. As coordinators of our family, we do our best and model flexibility.
If you are concerned about an eating disorder in yourself or a family member, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor and therapist. It is not a family’s fault if a child develops an eating disorder. Still, there are many things a family can do to support a strong body image. Talk about all the valuable things our bodies can do, “Your strong legs helped you ride your bike up that big hill!” Model positive language about bodies and food in your home. There is no such thing as a wrong body or bad foods. Suppose I overhear one of my kids speaking negatively about themselves. In that case, I interrupt immediately, just as I would if someone else said those bullying words to them. You may consider talking with your child’s pediatrician or therapist if you need support for your child. Eating disorders can be dangerous, so please seek help. The National Eating Disorder Association has screening tools and a helpline to call/text (1-800-931-2237).
Eating and making food together give us many opportunities to connect with our families and create joyful memories. We can gently show our kids what we expect during mealtime and build respect for the work required to grow, cook, and clean our meals.
Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, imparting a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and pup.