Question: I have three children aged six, seven and nine. My husband and I always try to have a home-cooked family meal each day. Because of his working hours, it is mainly me doing the cooking, but I don’t mind this as I have always loved cooking.
The problem I have is that my children constantly criticise my food. I find it really disheartening and I get irritable with them. Mealtimes can end up being an unpleasant battle with them complaining and me getting annoyed. My eldest has always been negative at the dinner table, but now the two younger ones are joining in so they are all now complaining about the food – it is so disheartening.
I don’t want to give up serving them healthy food and trying to have a proper sit down meal at home – if they had their way we would just be eating chicken nuggets and chips in front of the TV.
I just wish I could get them to enjoy their food more.
Answer: Establishing the routine of sitting down together for a home cooked meal together is an important goal in any family. A routine of family meals has lots of potential benefits for children and parents in that they can provide a regular time to chat and connect with one another and can increase the likelihood of healthy eating habits being established in the long-term. So, you and your husband are right not to give up on your goal of family mealtimes.
However, battles at mealtimes are unfortunately common in families. Many parents have similar experiences of children rejecting healthy food and meal times being dominated by efforts to get children to eat rather than being enjoyable times of chat and connection.
When children complain about food, parents can easily take it as a personal rejection. You might have spent a lot of time preparing your healthy food (out of love for your children), and then understandably feel hurt that they reject it out of hand. Food and feeding can be an emotive issue in parenting. When children reject your food it can feel like they are rejecting your love and it is easy to take it personally. Being self-aware of how you are feeling is an important first step to changing how you respond.
Responding in a calm way
When children complain or reject your food, it is easy to become irritated and get “hooked in” to react by cajoling and pressurising them to eat. However, this pattern of reacting can make things worse. Children can dig their heels in and the meal time atmosphere can become soured. Further, it means that the child who is not eating gets the most attention – I have no doubt that your two youngest have started to complain as they see this is the way their older brother gets your undivided albeit negative attention.
The key to change is to break this pattern of reacting. When your children complain, respond calmly without giving them too much attention. For example, you might say “well that is what we have to eat today” and then move on to talk about something else. You can also decide to simply ignore complaints and just talk to the children who are eating happily. During family mealtimes, the goal is to largely non-food conversations when you share news, talk about fun events etc. Ideally, the only references to food should be about how nice it is or the special way it was prepared!
Only feed at mealtimes
One way to encourage healthy eating at family meals is to make sure you only provide food at mealtimes. If one of your children continually complains and refuses to eat, avoid trying to cajole or force him. Instead when meal time is over, simply take away the food without a fuss. However, once his natural hunger kicks in later, avoid giving him any new food and remind him when the next meal time is. When he says he is hungry you can say “ that is great, you will enjoy your dinner later so.”
It is crucial to communicate this in a matter of fact positive tone and avoid any sarcasm or irritation. If you find this hard to put into practice, then you can consider offering healthy snack such as an apple to tide him over, but remember a little bit of hunger will make the next meal more appetising.
Get your children involved in family meals
The best way to help your children enjoy family meals is to get them involved in the preparation, cooking and clean up as much as possible. Sit down with your children as you plan the meals for the week. Ask them about their preferences and get them involved in the shopping and cooking. Insist on the rule that the meals they request must be healthy and educate them about what this might be (i.e. must contain one to two vegetables, must be home cooked, etc). Linking in with the school curriculum on healthy eating can be useful – they will have already received classroom input on the food pyramid, the importance of vegetables etc.
Read recipes together and where possible include their preferences and special requests – for example each of can get to choose their favourite meal once a week. In the long term the goal is to get them to take more and more responsibility for the family meal.
They could move from helping to cook once a week to taking responsibility for the whole meal and learning to cook largely by themselves This way you not only transform the family mealtimes and make them a truly shared family experience but you also teach them valuable life skills and give them a satisfying life long passion.