Encouraging healthy eating behaviours at meals

Creating the right environment at mealtime can help promote healthy eating habits. Infants and children like routine and boundaries, and so setting these for mealtimes as you would other parts of their day can be very helpful, especially if you are finding mealtimes with your child challenging.
It’s important to remember the different responsibilities that parents and children have at meals. Parents are responsible for deciding what, when and where children eat, and children are responsible for deciding if, what and how much of what is offered they eat. Understanding and accepting this can be very helpful for parents, especially if you aren’t sure if your child is eating enough. Children are incredibly good at deciding how much they need to eat. To adults this amount can sometimes seem ridiculously small, but most children will vary their how much they eat meal to meal, balancing out their intake through the day. The amount that kids eat (or don’t eat!) is a huge source of stress for most parents , but unless your child isn’t growing well or you feel that there isn’t enough variety in their diet, try to relax (it’s hard!)!
You can help make your child’s mealtime experience better by following a few easy steps, outlined below.
• Set a routine to your day, so that your child knows to expect meals and snacks. Of course day-to-day life makes having a rigid routine impossible (and that’s probably a good thing), but keeping the timing roughly the same helps your child recognize hunger signals and know it’s time for a meal (or snack).
• Meals should be calm, pleasant, and enjoyable, ideally for everyone involved.
• Children are easily distracted, so turn the television, computer, or tablet off, and put your phone away. If you have music playing or the radio on, turn it off, or right down, and choose slower, more soothing songs. There should be no toys or books at the table to compete for your child’s attention. By doing this you make it clear to your child that mealtime is for eating, not playing or watching.
• Ideally, all meals should take place at a table. Your child should sit in a highchair, booster seat or regular chair, depending on his or her age, and be at the table with the rest of the family.
• If it’s possible, eat together! Many young children like to share and eat food off of their parent’s plates. They also see their parents eating a wide variety of foods, so may be interested in trying new foods if they see you eating them.
• Meals are not the forum for arguments. Instead, talk to your child about his or her day, or any other pleasant or fun topic they might enjoy. Engage your child in conversation, talking about things other than the food on his or her plate, or how much he or she is eating.
• In the same vein, try to avoid focusing on your child’s intake (this is very hard to do). Infants and children respond best to positive reinforcement, so praising them when they do eat, and not addressing it when they don’t may help encourage more reliable eating patterns.
• Keep meals short – maximum 20-25 minutes. Children have short attention spans, so don’t make them sit at the table for long periods of time. This may only cause more battles, or a fussy kid who hates mealtimes.
Following these strategies will give you the tools to creating healthy eating habits and foster enjoyable meals. Good luck!