Family Mealtimes: Instilling Healthy Habits in Kids

As a parent, your days are probably pretty stressful. You get the older kids off to school, run errands, keep the household running smoothly and maintain your career. At the end of a hard day, you just want to relax and spend some quality time with your family.

But if you’re like most busy parents, relaxation time is nothing more than wishful thinking. As the house fills up again at night, there’s noise, tantrums and disorganization, which seem to last until everyone falls asleep.

Mealtime, whether it’s breakfast together or a family dinner, doesn’t have to be as stressful as the rest of your day. Here are some tips to handle picky eaters, set an example of healthy eating (which children learn from their parents), and make your meals together a more positive experience:
  • Try to serve food in a comfortable, relaxed and unhurried atmosphere.
  • Encourage a child’s participation in meal preparation (measuring, stirring, decoration, cutting and arranging)
  • Food should be warm or cool, (not hot or cold); a child’s mouth is more sensitive than an adult’s
  • Flavors should be mild, not spicy; a child has more taste buds than an adult
  • If the child is able, give her a small, mini-shopping list to look for a few items on the lower shelves. Make sure the foods are nutritious and easy to handle.
  • If you want to avoid waste, serve smaller portions. Don’t encourage overeating or fussy eaters by forcing a child to eat everything on the plate.
  • Let your child learn to feed her or himself. Be patient. To ease the mess, put newspaper under the chair and have a towel ready to wipe up spills.
  • Serve food with child-sized plates and cups.
  • If possible, plan rest or quiet time before meals. A tired or overly excited child may be less hungry at mealtimes.
  • When introducing a new food, try serving it during the same meal as a favorite food.
  • Make pre-meal hand-washing a pleasant event. Allow time for the child to enjoy the splash of soap and water. A quick, forced washing, particularly after the food is served, may make a child too upset to eat well at the meal.
  • Set a good example. If other people at the table enjoy a variety of foods, your child will learn by copying what you do.
  • If your child appears to have lost interest in the meal, give him/her a reasonable time to eat (20-30 minutes) then quietly but firmly remove the food. Most children will eat when they are hungry. Do not force the issue.
  • Likes and dislikes may appear suddenly. Be casual about these new food notions. If no one pays special attention to these quirks, they will soon be outgrown.
  • Do not coax, play games or force your child to eat. Make a wide variety of nutritious foods available to your child, and then let your child decide what to eat.
  • Small children prefer to eat with their fingers. Give them small sandwiches, raw veggies, meat cut into bite sizes, fruits and cheese cut into small pieces, and crackers spread with peanut butter or cottage cheese.
  • Be casual about desserts, and make them a part of the total meal plan when they are served. Placing special attention on desserts, or using them as rewards only, makes them more desirable than other foods.
  • Let your child be the judge about how much to eat. Appetite may vary from one meal to another, and from day to day. Never make an issue of food acceptance. You provide the nutritious choices, and then let the child choose among them.
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Member Comments

ty - good to know. Report
Good information for those with children. Report
Good need-to-know information, thanks! Report
making the meal a family "social " time is helpful. too many children eat in front of the tv or while playing video games. Hard to set the example when they are not engaged in the meal or with the parents. Report
To me never bribe a kid to eat or make them "special" foods. Eat what everyone else eats or nothing Report
Thanks for posting this Report
Thank you for this article Report
when you let your child decide what he/she is going to eat or not eat ends up with them eating mac and cheese for every meal... we were given the choice of eating what was on the table or going hungry...we always had a wide variety of fruits and veggies at each mal so had a wide variety in our diet. Our second helping was our choice but first helping was you ate what was on your plate.... didn't harm us in the least. Report
This article is from 2005.

If this article were updated for 2020, at the top of the list for healthy eating habits would be NO CELL PHONES at the dinner table for either kids or adults.

Too many families don't even think twice about looking at their cell phone during meals. This has to stop. it's unhealthy. You should sit, eat and chat as a family. That encourages social interaction with real people, not FB or Tik Tok profiles.

Kids will follow thru with what they are taught Report
Amazing that all of a sudden kids need special rules to eat, too much catering makes a kid that doesn’t ever appreciate a wide variety of foods. We grew up eating what my parents ate with no meal time hysteria, this making special meals for kids is not helping.
thank you Report
thank you Report
Great ideas. Report


About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.