As a dietitian, food lover, and mom, I believe food should be nourishing, taste good, and appeal to the majority of mouths at my table. This task is NOT easy, and in fact, outside of getting my kids to sleep, it is one of the most challenging tasks for me. With three young children under the age of 5, I also admit that simply eating together is exhausting! Come on over, and it will be pretty impossible for us to carry on a conversation because children are competing to see who can say “poop” the loudest and/or crying in protest because they can’t use the chef knife to cut up their melon.  The reason I continue to put myself through this mealtime circus is because I know eating that as a family is strongly related to better performance in school, less involvement in risky behaviors, and maintenance of a healthy body weight. For our young family, it is also a time to teach gratitude, emulate good manners, promote positive table talk, and display adventurous eating by trying new foods.

With each child who has been added to our kitchen table, I have learned to let go of control and honor my favorite feeding philosophy called the Division of Responsibility by Registered Dietitian, Ellyn Satter.  Her philosophy states that parents are responsible for what, when, where and children are responsible for how much to eat and whether they want to eat or not.  While following this guidance is not always easy, it is a guiding principle I strive to achieve in addition to these 3 foundational “P’s” for surviving family mealtime.

  1. Persistence: Don’t give up – your kids will spit it out, tell you it’s gross, or object to even trying a meal that you spent hours making.  Don’t let that turn you into a “mac-and-cheese-only” mom. Keep offering the foods you want them to eat and offer those nourishing foods you know they need.  Try different food “forms.” For example, if they don’t like black beans, try refried beans in a burrito. Put a favorite food on their plate that you know they will eat but continue to introduce new foods and prior rejected ones.  It can take 20 times of exposure for a kid to decide if they like a food before adoption. Keep it in the meal rotation.
  2. Positivity: I hope my kitchen table is always be a place my children will want to be. Just last night I raised my voice in frustration as another child tried to crawl across the table.  Yes, it is an on-going challenge, but I forge on to make the eating experience a positive one. The table is also not a place to bargain with a dessert in order to get a child to eat their veggies or bring up the recent C- minus on a report card. When a child doesn’t like a food, I try to teach them to really describe what they don’t like (too chewy, sour, etc) vs. letting them get away with words like “icky” or “gross” that are not only negative, but influence other sibling’s foods choices as well.
  3. Planning: Unless you have a personal chef, healthy meals don’t just happen. From those first days of baby food, I had more time to plan for variety with more time to shop and cook.  However, meal planning today requires more strategy. Meal planning today often takes one hour on a weekday, with grocery shopping early Saturday morning and meal prep/cooking on Sunday during naps.  This process takes time, but it saves time + energy + sanity later in the week.

I often reminisce about the times prior to kids when I lingered at the table by myself or with my husband, but I wouldn’t trade the current chaotic meals (ok, maybe just a few) for anything.  As we all know, the days (or meals) can be long, but the years go by fast. As my children get older, mealtime will look different: the after-school calendar will be busier, random babble or toddler talk will turn into engaging conversations, and sippy cups will be no more.

The best way to show children that you love them is to listen to them, & the kitchen table is the ideal time for them to have your ear.

The best way to show children that you love them is to listen to them, and the kitchen table is the ideal time for them to have your ear.

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.