As seen in Charm East Texas.
Nothing brings people together quite like a great meal. Whether there’s an occasion to celebrate or the meal itself is the occasion, eating is a universally human activity that builds bonds in the company of others. A special occasion without the food wouldn’t feel as special. Within a family, the dinner table can be a powerful tool to help children learn about life, community, and eating well.
Shared family meals can help children of all ages learn what and how they should eat. The right family food culture can create a safe and familiar place where kids may (eventually) be willing to try unfamiliar foods. It takes time and persistence to craft a family food culture, but it is well worth the effort. Every household can create their own unique food culture, complete with their own expectations, traditions, and special memories. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it—only a way that works for each family.
SHARE A MEAL TOGETHER
A great place to start is simply to make an effort to eat together (without electronic distractions). Joining together for a meal builds respect and shows each person how they are a valued member of the family. Not every meal needs to be shared, of course, since this is neither practical nor necessary, but intentionally sharing at least some meals together lays the groundwork for breaking through barriers of picky eating, communication issues, and behavioral expectations.
In my family, we choose to eat dinner together almost every night of the week. Even when we occasionally bring home takeout, we still maintain the ritual of sitting down together and having a meal. The television is off, phones aren’t allowed, and there’s often pleasant music playing in the background to help everyone feel calm and content.
Our children have joined us consistently at the dinner table before they were old enough to understand why, and this in turn has created an environment of expectation. Every night it’s the same: sit down together and share a meal where we all eat the same food. There is no short order cooking for dinner; the question “What do you want to eat?” is nonexistent. We all eat together, which means we all eat some form of the same foods.
This has worked well for coaxing our sometimes-ornery three-year-old to eat most everything we eat. If we eat something she doesn’t particularly care for, she can choose to eat it anyway or go to bed a little hungry and eat more for breakfast the next day. Ninety-seven percent of the time she decides just to eat whatever it is that we are having.
MODIFY THE FOOD TALK
Our family food culture also pays close attention to the way we talk about food. It’s easy to entertain criticisms that can be very damaging to the way children think about food. In my family, we focus on never talking negatively about real food, even in a joking manner. We avoid using words like yucky or gross, and instead we choose to focus on framing foods as delicious and yummy before drilling down about the specific attributes that we like.
We stay away from categorizing food as healthy or unhealthy; rather, we focus on how some things are special treats should only be eaten occasionally (or we might get a tummy ache). We use the same descriptive words for broccoli as we do for cupcakes—yummy and delicious! Kids don’t usually get excited to eat broccoli when you tell them it’s healthy, but they might eat it when you tell them it’s delicious, buttery, and cheesy.
LET EVERYONE HELP
Another important piece of my family’s food culture is the cooking process. My three-year-old often “helps” me cook, a source of wonderful encouragement for her to be a more adventurous and eager eater (even when it exercises all my patience). Allowing your kids to participate in the cooking process, even if they make a mess, will help develop competence and confidence in cooking and eating. My daughter started out just watching me cook, and I’d explain things to her before she’d run off after a minute or two. Now, I always ask her if she’d like to help me, and we try to make her feel like an important part of cooking, setting the table, or cleaning up after dinner.
Essentially, we are trying to create an environment where eating all different kinds of foods, mostly homemade and from scratch, is normal everyday behavior. Conversely, eating processed foods and “junk” food is not normal and it is only an occasional occurrence; however, we don’t forbid all treats because that seems to make them more desirable. Even if we don’t categorize foods as being “junk” versus “wholesome” that often, it is more about creating an environment of balanced normality.
While my family most certainly doesn’t do everything “right”—and we definitely have our fair share of mealtime battles—our three year old is a great eater who only knows that all food is yummy and tastes delicious. She’s never heard anything else from us. Even if we don’t love a food, we try not to let on. We may even cook things we don’t love periodically because we want all foods to be tried and accepted.
At first, it can be difficult to create a better family food culture, especially if older kids are complaining about certain things, so start small. Maybe start by banning the words yucky or gross. Remind them often that we don’t use those words when we talk about food; remind them instead that all food is yummy. Even if it doesn’t sink in right at first, don’t worry, the seeds sown often take time to root and fully develop.
So, eat something yummy with someone you love and make it a habit you won’t regret.
is a registered dietitian (RD) who works with Brookshire Brothers promoting real fresh, real delicious
foods and nutrition education to the community. She is also a clinical dietitian representing Woodland Heights Medical Center in Lufkin where she does outreach education on food and nutrition. Food is her passion, so Angela loves trying new recipes and exploring the more holistic side of nutrition. Angela loves to cook, garden, and spend time outdoors. In addition to the Brookshire Brothers blog
, look for Angela's monthly articles in Charm East Texas.