Family meals: Developing Healthy Eating Patterns

AngelaRD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 6 minutes

What to know about planning and having family meals

  • Family mealtime allows you to role model healthy eating for your baby and toddler

  • Family meals are linked to children eating healthy foods more often, being less likely to engage in disordered eating, and having a healthy weight.4,5,6

  • Discover tips on helping build a positive family meal experience

The research is clear that eating together as a family can have a lasting impact not only on your health but also on your child’s. This includes positive effects on food preferences and eating habits, as well as communication and self-esteem.4,5,6,19

The benefits are many, and it’s never too early (or too late) to begin including this healthy eating routine for your family.

Start early role modeling healthy eating

Begin having family meals even when your little one is a baby and toddler.

From a very young age, babies are more likely to try foods they’ve seen other people eating, especially their parents and siblings.1 If your baby sees you enjoying broccoli, carrots, and spinach (from your own plate or even their tray), they’ll accept them more readily.

In studies of parents and their preschool children, the parents’ fruit and vegetable consumption strongly relates to how much of these foods their kids eat.2,3 So the more you sit down and eat together as a family, the more opportunities your baby has to observe your eating habits, helping them accept more foods.

Benefits of family meals for children and teens

The benefits of family meals continue as your child grows. Older children and adolescents who have 3 or more family meals per week may be more likely to eat healthy foods, less likely to be overweight, and less likely to engage in disordered eating.4,5,6

The family table also creates an opportunity to foster communication and support for you and your children of all ages.19

Benefits of family meals for parents

Family meals can offer health benefits for parents, too. Regular family meals can help us build and maintain healthy eating habits, such as consuming appropriate portions and eating more fruits and vegetables.7 They have also been associated with positive social and mental health of the parents.8

And family meals are convenient. By making one meal that everyone can eat together you avoid becoming a short order cook, which can add up to a lot more work (and stress!) to feed your family.

Need help figuring out what to make for family meals? Reach out to our team of registered dietitian nutritionists and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am-6pm (ET). Chat Now!

8 Tips to help make family mealtime better

1. Make family meals a priority

Sit down together for at least one meal a day. If that feels initially unrealistic, start by aiming to have at least a few family meals per week since studies show that having 3 or more family meals per week is where benefits start for kids.4

If family dinner seems impossible given your schedules, try sitting down together for a different meal. Breakfast is an easier time for some families, or even a snack.

Learn about: 8 Tips for Simple, Quick, Healthy Cooking

2. Do not ban ‘forbidden’ foods

Highly refined foods are everywhere: candy, chips, crackers, pastries, desserts. These have very little, if any, nutritional value, but can hold too much power if we let them. Restricting our or our children’s access to them can make kids want them more and then have less control when they finally get to eat them. This may lead to negative consequences such as unhealthy eating patterns, overeating, and higher BMI.9,10

The goal is to take away these foods’ power so that they aren’t craved and over-eaten.

To do this, you want to find the right balance between allowing access along with some healthy boundaries. Try not to use these foods as rewards or prizes (whether emotional or for finishing a meal or task). But do allow them occasionally as part of an otherwise balanced diet.

Tips for providing ‘forbidden’ foods:

  • Allow them as part of a structured (planned), balanced snack or meal. This helps the food not be seen as forbidden and helps reduce cravings for it.

  • Provide a specific portion of dessert to everyone with dinner. Allow family members to eat it before, during, or after the meal. In this way, dessert is no longer a reward but simply a normal part of the meal, therefore taking away the food’s power.

  • Occasionally allow unrestricted access to these foods. Set a plate of cookies or bowl of chips out for everyone to enjoy (even yourself!). Try not to make anyone feel bad about eating the foods in the quantity they’d like (including yourself). The novelty will wear off and eventually your kids will begin to eat less.11,12 Just make sure this happens far away from a meal, so that it doesn’t affect on their hunger!

3. Avoid becoming a short order cook

Babies and children often accept new foods when paired with foods they already like.13 So when you’re meal planning, make sure to include at least one food each family member will eat (this can be as simple as placing whole grain bread on the table alongside your entrée).

However, avoid offering alternatives for the main dish as this may send the message that you don’t expect your child to learn to like new foods.

Learn about: Helping Your Child Learn to Love Healthy Foods

4. Serve disliked or new foods over and over again

Babies, children, and adults learn to accept foods through repeated exposure.1,14 But these exposures do not even have to involve actually eating the food. Simply seeing the food, watching others enjoy eating it, and (as your baby gets older) passing the food around at the table can all help a child learn to eat and like a new food.

Experiment with cooking foods different ways (sautéed, steamed, roasted or raw) and try a variety of flavor combinations and seasonings to find what everyone likes best.

If your baby is brand new to solid foods, let them try (and try again) a variety of foods you make to help baby develop a taste for them.

Read more: How Can I Get My Baby to Love Veggies?

5. Don’t pressure your child to eat or try specific foods

Studies show that pressuring children to eat “healthy” foods such as vegetables can backfire.

Let your child choose what they want from the foods you put on their plate. When it comes to feeding your child, it is your job to decide what foods to offer, when to offer them, and where to offer them. But your child will decide how much they want to eat (of the foods you’ve offered) or if they will eat at all.15,16

It’s perfectly fine (and normal!) if your child only eats one or two of the foods you offer. As you serve different foods at the family table, encourage everyone to have a taste, but reassure them that they don’t have to.

Learn more: The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating

6. Don’t stress if every meal isn’t the perfect

Creating the routine of sitting down to family meals has so many benefits for your children without even considering what you put on the table.

Remember that home-cooked meals need only be simple cooking rather than creating a fancy feast. Saving the complicated or time-consuming recipes for special occasions helps family meals become a reality. It’s also ok to use prepared foods or order delivery sometimes.

As always, do your best to include healthy, wholesome food choices (think vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, high quality dairy, fish, and lean meat), and know that you are still benefiting your family just by eating together.

Meal ideas for your little one

Meal Plan for 6- to 9-Month-Old Baby

Meal Plan for 12-Month-Old Toddler

Meal Plan for 18 to 24 Months Old Toddlers

7. Allow planned snack times to support mealtimes

Offer your baby (and yourself) sit down snacks between meals but not within 1 - 2 hours of the next mealtime.17 This planning will help ensure that everyone arrives at the table hungry and ready to eat what you’re serving.

Learn about: Healthy Snacks for Babies and Toddlers

8. The quality of the time you spend together during a family meal counts

Turn off the TV, put away phones, tablets, and any other distractions, and allow everyone to focus on the food and each other.18 Use the occasion to support the best in each other and you’ll find the benefits of family meals become only more powerful over time.

Try to keep mealtimes pleasant by avoiding arguing or scolding. Enjoy your time together!

For more information on picky eating, please visit our Picky Eating Hub.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Picky Eater Meal Plan: Recipe and Snack Ideas

Healthy in a Hurry

Easy Snacks for Moms and Toddlers