Eating with small children is hard. I mean, really, really hard. They whine. They complain. They drop food, spill food, dump food. They ask for 17 different things, usually just as you sit down, so you feel like you’re running a relay, not eating a meal. And now that we’re all spending so much time together due to COVID-19, the mess seems to be compounded. Health professionals tell you to relax while you eat, chew your food, and get your veggies, but in reality, you’re scarfing cold fish sticks over the sink because sitting down is pointless and you can’t go one more round with the kids over what’s for dinner. You’re tired. 

Parents, this is for you. This blog post is about feeding kids so you can feed yourself, keep your sanity, and meet your health goals.

The most common complaint I hear from parents is “The kids won’t eat what I cook!” If you include dietary changes that parents are trying to make for themselves, you’ve created the perfect recipe for unhappy kids and stressed parents. Here’s one of my tricks: serve what you’ve prepared for the family with the addition of one thing you know your kids will eat.  The most common choice for that one food is bread with a spread. That might be butter, it might be cashew cheese–you decide. (In one family I worked with, the young child really didn’t like carbs, so they offered jerky and cashews as an addition to the meal.) This way, you know your child will eat something, and you don’t have to be a short-order cook. Everybody eats. Everybody wins.

A health change parents frequently want to make is to eat more veggies, but who’s going to convince a 3-year-old that a plate of braised kale is the way to go? No one. Absolutely no one. The easiest solution that I have found to this problem is to serve a plate of fresh vegetables along with your cooked veggie or salad because kids are more inclined toward raw than cooked veggies. Try carrots, peppers, cucumber, snap peas, jicama, etc. As a bonus, you can eat them too and your dietitian will be thrilled!

OK, we have food the kid will eat and a vegetable choice, along with whatever nutritious deliciousness you’ve prepared for the main course. What about sitting? What about chewing? What about mindful eating? What about…  Yeah, realistically, you won’t be sitting through dinner for a looooong time. But you can practice mindful eating in tiny chunks. First, take three deep breaths before you eat and continue to breathe. Every time you start to feel stressed, take a big breath in, all the way to your belly button, hold for a beat, and then let it out slowly. Staying calm during your meal keeps your body out of the fight-or-flight response and allows better digestion. Plus, who are we kidding, you need to take a looooot of deep breaths when trying to get through a meal with young children. 

Next, put your fork down between bites. This slows down your eating and makes you more mindful of how much you’re eating. Our tendency when eating with the tiny whirlwinds that are our children is to inhale our food, possibly because you haven’t eaten all day and aren’t sure when you will again. Yes, I know you’re already putting your fork down every one of those 17 times you run to the kitchen, but you should put it down when you’re actually sitting at the table too so you can actually taste your food. Don’t worry, the food will be there. This is especially relevant as we get close to Thanksgiving – the perfect time to sit back and enjoy your meal with your family.

And that brings us to chewing.  Chew slowly, even when your body (and your kids) are screaming at you to swallow your food like a snake. The simple act of chewing starts the digestive process and allows you to more fully break down and absorb the nutrients in your food.  If you went to all the trouble to cook kale, you might as well get all the nutritional benefits, too.

Eventually, your kids will be old enough to get down from the table and sort of entertain themselves so you can sit and finish your meal at a more leisurely pace. Eventually, you won’t cringe in preparation for the wails of “but I wanted…” and “I don’t like….” the moment you set a meal on the table   Eventually your lovely progeny will eat most of the foods you cook.

That will be a wonderful day! In the meantime, breathe, try to relax, and eat your veggies.

Interested in learning more? Schedule an appointment with us to get support on your future journey to body and mind health.

Written by the Starkel Nutrition team.