Being a parent at mealtime is tough. With picky eaters, sudden refusals to eat previously enjoyed dishes, vegetable rejections, fights over who sits where and, at least in my house, over who gets the pink cup, real-life mealtimes don't always resemble the calm and joyous scene depicted by Norman Rockwell in his famous Thanksgiving dinner painting.
If I were a betting man, I'd wager that, far and away, the most common child-related dinner table battles revolve around one of these two themes: eating vegetables and cleaning plates.
As to how parents might handle those concerns, both instinctively lend themselves to an authoritative response. I'd imagine that refrains of "you can't have dessert until you finish your broccoli" and "you're not getting up from that table until that plate is clean" echo from coast to coast on a nightly basis.
But are they the right songs to sing?
Given the declining health and diets of our children, much research has been done around parenting styles and feeding. That research was recently summarized and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the conclusions are clear: Those songs tend to backfire.
The article speaks to many mealtime battles and can be summarized into these evidence-based dos and don'ts:
• Pressuring your children to eat fruits and vegetables, or markedly restricting their access to occasional treats, have both been linked with children eating more than normal (called disinhibited eating) when faced with junky food.
• Adopting a knee-jerk negative response with your overweight children when they want to use food for comfort, celebration or pleasure is likely to lead them to struggle more with overeating as they get older.
• Using food as a reward has been shown to be associated with children having higher intakes of sugary foods and beverages.
• Eating with your children increases their likelihood of consuming more fruits and vegetables.
• Exposing your children early and broadly to different foods increases the likelihood of their having a more healthful diet as adults.
• The more fruits and vegetables you make available in the home, the more fruits and vegetables your kids will eat.
• The more fruit juice and breakfast bars you make available in the home, the less actual fruits and vegetables your kids will eat.
Translating the above points into action is fairly straightforward:
1. Get rid of your family's clean-your-plate club immediately! If your kids are regularly leaving food on their plates, serve them less.
2. Offer your children a wide variety of foods and flavors and consider incorporating a "one-bite" rule—so long as they've tried one bite, they need not try more. Enough "one bites" and, in time, they'll grow to like foods they initially may reject.
3. Cook with your children as often as you can, and involve them in the selection of new recipes.
4. Eat as a family. Turn off the distractions and actually sit and enjoy your time together—the kids will be leaving home before you know it.
5. Make dessert an occasional affair that's not dependent on whether or not your little ones eat their greens.
6. Reward as often as you can with special time with mom or dad, or simple praise. No doubt you'll still want to give your kids treats—it's one of the joys of being a parent—but I'd encourage doing so for no good reason rather than teaching your children that candy and junk food are rewards for this, that or the other.
7. If you're worried about your child's weight, don't put him or her on a "diet." Instead, take a good, long look at your family's lifestyle and make changes as a whole.
The best line in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article has to be this one, which basically sums it all up: "Children like what they know and eat what they like." What that means is that if all you're offering your kids are so-called "kid foods" (you know the ones—chicken nuggets, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, tacos, etc.), then don't be surprised if that's all they're willing to eat.
I'll add two more lines of my own: "Live the lives you want your children to live," and "don't make mealtime a battleground."
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The 10 Day Reset Solution: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and How to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.