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    More than just a menu

    Elizabeth Chang

    THE WASHINGTON POST – When TikTok user Buggystops Kitchen posted a video in July of the individualised menus she gives her children – each sheet offering a few options for breakfast, lunch and dinner that she knows that particular kids likes – she caused quite a stir.

    Viewers watched the video more than 500,000 times and wrote more than 950 comments reflecting the well-worn debate over whether children should eat what’s put in front of them or be allowed to choose their food.

    Some commenters were horrified, “My kids eat what I serve. I’m not running a restaurant; I’m not a short order chef,” wrote one. Others were impressed, adding comments such as, “I feel like this is a win win win. They feel like they have (a) say, you know they will eat it, the deciding what to make is done. Genius.”

    On her blog, the mother of seven explained that she created the system because she was weary of throwing away food and didn’t enjoy nagging her children to eat meals they didn’t want. The menus, she wrote, worked like magic.

    “No more wasted food. No more tears due to being forced to eat foods they either didn’t like or just were not in the mood for. No more feeding the pets under the table. No more hassle for me.”

    But when it comes to feeding kids, it doesn’t have to be a situation in which “either you cater totally to your kids or you make them eat no matter what”, said family therapist and Harvard Associate Professor Anne Fishel who is co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, a non-profit that promotes family meals, which decades of research have shown can benefit children’s physical and psychological health.

    Feeding a family is a fraught endeavour. And, in some cases, parents need to provide different menus for kids with allergies or food sensitivities or for those on the autism spectrum. “But for the vast majority of kids, we’re just talking about individual preferences,” Fishel said. “And I think there are ways that families can honour those without being a short-order cook.”

    By finding this middle road, parents can help their kids have healthy relationships with food, Fishel said.

    Here are some ways to approach mealtime that may help you find a good balance.

    PRIORITISE EATING TOGETHER

    Fishel acknowledged that the impulse to feed children whatever they desire is understandable.

    “Parents want to make their kids happy, and giving them the food that they like to eat is a very rewarding way to do that,” she said.

    One of her greatest concerns with doing so, however, is that making individual meals is time and energy-consuming, so it may interfere with dining together and sap parents’ energy levels for engaging with kids at the table.

    “It’s hard enough to get families together, even though a lot of people agree that family meals are really important,” agreed Associate Professor and Developmental Psychologist at Brigham Young University Blake Jones, who focusses on health issues.

    A 2015 review of family meal research found that the reported frequency of family meals per week varied from about 33 per cent of meals to about 61 per cent. (There is some evidence that the pandemic has increased the frequency of family meals).

    Research has found physical and psychological benefits for children whose families dine together.

    One study concluded that children and adolescents who eat with their families three or more times per week have healthier diets and weights than those who share fewer than three meals per week.

    Another determined that frequent family meals improve mental health among adolescents.

    A review of earlier studies suggested that frequent family meals made teens less prone to risky behaviour. Even parents can benefit emotionally from family meals. Eating together doesn’t have to be a long, formal affair.

    Research led by psychologist and family development expert Barbara Fiese found that the average beneficial family meal lasted only about 18 to 20 minutes.

    “That’s a pretty short time to be associated with all these benefits,” Jones said. “So it’s not just that you eat together. Maybe it’s what you do during the meal.”

    FOCUS ON COMPETENT EATING

    One thing parents should do during family meals is take the long view, according to registered dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter.

    “When feeding children, the goal is not to get food into them today,” Satter said. “That goal is to help them learn positive eating attitudes and behaviours for a lifetime.”

    Satter defines eating competence as a child’s “ability to go to a meal and look it over without freaking out, picking and choosing from what is available and eating as much or as little as they want of the food that their parents have put in front of them”.

    Competent eaters grow up to have regular meals, consume a variety of foods and feel relaxed about eating, Satter said.

    “They generally have positive attitudes about eating, as opposed to this negativity, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t do this or that’.”

    Studies also show that they have high-quality diets.

    By contrast, when parents indulge a kid’s limited palate, “that child grows up to be eating the same narrow range of food that he started out with”, Satter said. “Moreover, he’s afraid of the food that’s in the world.” Research has shown that picky eaters don’t eat as healthfully and have more social phobias than non-picky eaters.

    Satter advises parents who want to raise competent eaters to follow her Division of Responsibility in Feeding, which said parents are responsible for what, when and where food is provided. The child is responsible for how much and whether they eat.

    BE CONSIDERATE WITHOUT CATERING

    Parents still should consider a child’s tastes when providing a meal, however. “Part of the parents’ what, when and where job is to be considerate of the child’s limited experience with food,” Satter said.

    When a parent plans a menu, they should always include “one or two food items that the child readily accepts or ordinarily eats and enjoys”.

    So, if a child arrives at the table and sees a bunch of unfamiliar food, they will also see something they know they like. And if a child doesn’t eat, you ask them to stay with you at the table to enjoy the other benefits of family dinner.

    By serving foods that a child hasn’t encountered before, “you give a child a chance to familiarise himself with that, to try it, to see somebody else eating it. And that’s the way palates expand,” Fishel said.

    And if a child refuses?

    “It’s not a misery to a child for one night not to want to eat everything that’s on offer because there’s some foods they don’t like,” she said.

    After all, they might be served something they love on another night. “I don’t think that a parent should spend a moment of feeling guilty about promulgating that life lesson.”

    And there are ways to recognise individual tastes while getting across the message that “we’re still a family eating together”, Fishel said.

    For example, families can serve a meal, such as tacos or macaroni and cheese, that can be customised with toppings.

    LET KIDS SERVE THEMSELVES

    Sharing food from the same serving plate (family-style) increased cooperation among both friends and strangers, according to a study by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach.

    Although the study did not include families, “it’s quite likely that the same principles hold in that context”, Fishbach said.

    Cooperation aside, serving meals family-style offers other benefits. By letting your children serve themselves, Jones said, rather than dishing it out for them, “you’re teaching the child, ‘Okay, get a little bit and then see how you feel, and then, if you want more, you can take it’.” This helps children develop autonomy and learn to recognise satiety cues.

    Satter also had advice about dessert, “Put a serving of dessert at each place on the table when you set the table. And let everybody eat it when they want to. Before or during or after the meal. No seconds.”

    Why?

    Because when we “use dessert as leverage to get them to eat their vegetables, you’re teaching them to overeat twice: once to eat the vegetables when they don’t want them, and then… to eat dessert when they’re already full of vegetables.”

    You’re also teaching your kids that dessert is the only valuable part of the meal.

    “Any time you use a food as a reward, the one you’re rewarded with becomes the preferred food.”

    DON’T MAKE THE FOOD THE CENTREPIECE OF FAMILY MEALS

    This seems a bit counterintuitive, but family dinner isn’t really about food. Fishel suggests promoting an attitude that tells kids, “We’ll have a range of food on the table. Eat what you want. We’re not going to talk much about it. We’re going to talk about your days and about the news and about what we’re going to do this weekend.”

    Whatever you serve your kids, whether it’s the same meal or a bunch of individual meals, the focus should be on the ambiance around the table.

    “It’s kids feeling that they can talk and people want to hear what they have to say,” Fishel said. “It’s a warm and welcoming atmosphere that really brings the mental health benefits and the cognitive benefits and the nutritional benefits.”

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