How do I get my child to eat dinner?
If you were to do a survey asking parents which meal they dreaded most, ‘the dinner meal’ would overwhelmingly be voted in at number one. By the end of the day everyone is tired, and the last thing you feel like doing is fighting over what food your precious little ones will or won't eat! Here are some tips for making dinners a smoother process for all involved…
Ban afternoon tea and watch dinner backfire
For many years folklore has passed down that if we stop children from having afternoon tea that they will be hungrier for their dinner meal. False, false, false. In fact, this tactic backfires. Skip afternoon tea and the child's stomach decodes this as 'food shortage' and need to go into hibernation mode for survival. So rather than eating more for dinner, in fact they eat less. Afternoon tea served around 3pm will have well and truly left their tummies in readiness for more food from 5pm onwards.
Timing of the dinner meal is much more important than we give credit to. Believe it or not, most people (big and little people), will eat a very good dinner meal at around 5pm. This coincides with the sun going down and before we had lights and lots of technology to help us stay awake longer, we would have been tucked up in bed not long after. Campers, think about when you cook dinner and go to bed - it is usually a lot earlier than when we are in the comforts of our own homes. So dinner around 5pm with a light snack if needed later (~8pm) for adults works well. Ideally there should be a gap of at least 20 minutes (preferably longer) between eating dinner and going to bed so that the body is not trying to do the heavy work of digestion whilst you are sleeping.
One family – one meal
Always aim to cook one meal for your family. If you start serving up chicken nuggets for one member, it won't take long for other children to demand their favourites and before you know it you'll be trying to manage a restaurant! Make sure that food is cut to the right size for little mouths. Children should be encouraged to try a bite of each thing on their plate. If after they have tried the food and they decide not to have more, do not 'rescue' them with endless glasses of milk, treats or alternative meals. Remove their plate and excuse them from the table. If they come back hungry 20 minutes later, offer a smaller portion of their dinner again.
The working family and eating together
We know that there are many benefits to eating as a family. Children have the chance to see you eating vegetables and also learn table manners and how to negotiate cutlery. In today's working age though, many parents are not sitting down to dinner until 7.30pm or later. This is simply too late for children to be eating dinner. Children have likely been up and going for 12 hours, they are tired, and ready for bed. Instead try feeding children at around 5pm and have a grown up sit with them while they eat. When Mum or Dad comes home, children can come back to the table and have a healthy snack whilst their parents eat their dinner. Families can talk about what happened during their day, helping to reinforce the social side of eating, but meal timings are better suited for younger members of the family.
Keeping it in perspective
So Junior has not had a big dinner. How did they eat for the rest of the day? If the answer is that '‘they ate a great breakfast, a huge lunch and healthy snacks', give yourself permission to relax. Remember also that children are growing, whereas adults have stopped growing (upwards anyway!). Adults' needs are less likely to change on a daily basis. The process of growing, and changes in activity levels all affect food intake. It is often be better to look at your child's intake over a week, rather than over a single day. Any concerns, though and you might consider an appointment with an accredited practicing dietitian.