January 11, 2019

Tips for building healthy family mealtime habits

It can be tough to get kids to eat a well-balanced diet. Schedules can be hectic, budgets can be tight and your kids say they only want hot dogs for dinner. Again. 

But with planning and support, every family can succeed with building healthy eating habits.

United Way for Southeastern Michigan Community Nutritionist Lily Doher helps parents transform today’s picky eaters into tomorrow’s healthy decision makers. One way we do it is through our FEAST program — Feeding, Eating and Succeeding Together. In the past year, we connected 168 parents and caregivers with this program this year, creating healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

We also work with partners across Metro Detroit to increase nutrition standards and physical activity at our Meet Up and Eat Up summer meal sites. Last summer, as a result of United Way grants and technical assistance, 13,346 additional children ate free Meet Up and Eat Up meals.

Parents can also work to build healthy habits at home. Doher shares some easy tips to get started.

Create a positive mealtime environment

Did you know that kids associate food flavors with the context they’re eaten in? That’s why it’s so important for mealtimes to be a positive experience for kids. 

“If children have a bad experience with food, they’ll associate mealtime with negative feelings,” Doher explains.  

It can take up to 10 tries before your child eats a new food. So give kids options and describe the food, but don’t force them to eat anything. Try to avoid making comments about which foods they should eat or how much food kids are eating. 

Try these recipes from local chefs!

Involve children in the meal process

Cooking can be an activity for all ages. Kids can help with organization, measuring ingredients, helping with cleanup. Cooking helps kids to learn skills like teamwork, communication and following instructions. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a list of how children as young as 2 can start helping at mealtime. 

Explore food together

Learning about food opens children to the experience of trying new foods. This can be as simple as picking out a new fruit or vegetable at the grocery store. In warmer weather, think about starting a family garden or even just planting a few herbs. Children will be more open to trying new vegetables if they’ve helped to grow them. 

You can also sign up for cooking classes with your kids, like the ones offered by Zaman International and Gleaner’s 

If that seems overwhelming, start small. “Take your kids to the grocery store and pick out new foods to try together,” Doher suggests. 

Make family mealtime a priority

Mealtime can be a special time for families—you can unwind, talk about your day and enjoy the experience of eating together. Studies also show that children who eat more family meals have higher diet quality as young adults.  

And it doesn’t have to happen at a dinner table, Doher suggests. Try having dinner on your lawn, or throwing a picnic on your living room floor.

“Family-style meals are sometimes difficult,” she says. “But as long as you’re sharing the same space and having a conversation, it’s a positive experience.”