Mighty Blog

Serving up strategy at meal time

Maggie Sonnek

We’ve tried peas. We’ve tried broccoli. We’ve even tried Brussels sprouts. Alas, our 2-year-old continues to ignore that pile of “green stuff” on his plate and reach for the carbs instead (just like his mother).

After chatting with Janie Cooperman, MS, pediatric clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, I now can come to the table feeling a little more prepared to take on a toddler at dinnertime. (Sounds like a thrilling TV show, doesn’t it?). I feel so enthused with what I’ve learned that I just had to share. 

Keep offering

Cooperman suggests offering specific foods 12-15 times before retiring them from the household menu. That’s a lot of peas! She also touts variety when planning the weekly carte du jour. For example, instead of plain bread, try whole wheat tortillas or pita pockets.

Division of responsibility

Kids are born wanting to eat. And they know when they’re hungry. It’s our job as parents to provide structure, support and opportunities.

Cooperman sites Ellyn Satter, an expert on the topic of the division of responsibility in feeding. Basically, this means we the parents are responsible for what, when and where our kids eat. They’re responsible for how much and whether they eat.

Yep. I said “whether.”

Cooperman suggests offering three scheduled meals a day with two or three snacks in between. “Eventually the child begins to understand the schedule and expectations,” she said. “Since he is not receiving food other than at the scheduled meals and snacks, he will soon get hungry enough and realize that he has no other option but to eat what’s being offered.”

Make it a non-issue

You know the old standby, “You can’t leave the table till your plate’s clean”? Well, turns out, forcing a clean plate prevents kids from learning to pick up on their own hungry and satiety cues. Apparently most of us unlearn the natural inclinations of when we’re full and hungry sometime between the ages of 3 and 5.

Cooperman suggests making the amount of food your child eats a non-issue. She dissuades from offering rewards for eating. “If they refuse to eat, let it go,” she said. “But keep offering it at future meals. Try not to let kids get power and control.” (Writer’s note: I’m totally guilty of bribing my son with a chocolate chip cookie for taking a bite of broccoli. Oops.) 

Eat mindfully 

Eating dinner together as a family has a lot of benefits. The Family Dinner Project, a grassroots movement driven by insights and experiences of families, says recent studies find regular family dinners can help lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression. Studies show that dinner conversation can help improve vocabulary more than reading.

But let’s focus on the obvious: eating together. Parents modeling healthy habits, like munching on fruits and veggies, provide a good example for kids. Cooperman touts the importance of eating mindfully.

“Slow down, connect and enjoy what you’re eating,” she said. “Appreciate the food and your time together; it’s a more-balanced way of eating and living.” 

Maggie Sonnek is a writer, blogger, lover-of-outdoors and momma to two young kiddos. When she’s not kissing boo-boos or cutting up someone’s food, she likes to beat her husband at Scrabble.

ChildrensMN