Not to put any more pressure on you (sorry!), but a new study says that how positive (or negative) you are at the table actually affects what your child eats.
You've heard over and over again that eating together as a family is important, and it's linked to healthier diets and less risk of overweight. But it turns out that your mood at the table can have an impact on your kids' eating too.
A new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found parents' interactions with their kids influences what the children eat. Through home visits and video observation of families with preschool-age children, researchers classified families into two groups: "Positive Expressers" were families with mostly positive emotions from mothers and kids (and low negative emotions from mothers). "All Expressers" had equal amounts of positive and negative emotions from moms and kids.
Mothers in the "Positive Expressers" group reported that their kids ate one more serving of healthy food such as fruits, vegetables, or soy-based protein foods compared to children in families with less positive mealtimes. (While this study focused on mothers' emotions, the researcher says future research will look at dads as well. Yes please.)
"Positive mealtimes have a wide range of benefits," says researcher Jaclyn Saltzman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois. "We knew that they promoted closeness by allowing parents and children to share daily happenings. Our research has found that there are health benefits of positive mealtimes as well."
But let's face it: Happy mealtimes aren't always easy, especially when your dinner companions are overtired kids or finicky eaters. Here are some steps you can take to make mealtimes a little bit cheerier:
- Take care of yourself and your emotional wellbeing "Practicing emotion regulation when you're dealing with the realities of family life is really important, because if you can regulate your emotions, it'll be easier to help your child learn to do the same," says Saltzman. "Some folks like to do breathing exercises or take a step away from the meal if things get frustrating, and some folks like to laugh it off. Whatever you do, you can always explain what you're doing to your child to model good behavior for them to copy."
- Stay calm. It's easy to feel frustrated if your child grimaces at his dinner or says he doesn't like broccoli today even though he loved it last week. Instead of getting angry, think about constructive ways to handle it. Maybe he would scarf down the broccoli if it was paired with a cheese sauce--or maybe you can simply try again another day.
- Have a mealtime routine. "Mealtimes can turn into battlefields really quickly for many families, in part because of how many other things busy parents are juggling," she says. "Between work, after school activities, and running the household, modern families have more on their plates than ever." As often as you can, serve meals at set times in a set place, and have a policy about keeping distractions like phones, tablets, and TVs, off and away from the table. Be clear about the behavior you expect from your kids at dinner—and what the consequences are for misbehavior.
- Talk about hunger and fullness. Talk to your children about what it feels like to be hungry and what it feels like to be full. "If your child says he is full, allow him to stop eating," says Saltzman. "Don't let mealtimes become a negotiation. Avoid using threats, bribes, or pressure to get your child to eat."
- Involve your kids. "In our study, we found that involving children in food preparation, meal planning, or grocery shopping was related to having a more positive family mealtime," she says. "Something as simple as having your toddler stir something for a minute, or letting them choose how much of a serving of food they want (within reason), can give your child a sense of pride, ownership, and autonomy."
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.