Family meals: Healthy eating patterns

Family enjoy their breakfast

From a very young age, babies are more likely to try foods they’ve seen other people eating, especially their parents. If your baby sees you enjoying broccoli, carrots, and spinach (from your own plate or even his tray), he’ll accept them more readily. In a survey of more than 550 parents of preschool children, the parents’ fruit and vegetable consumption was the strongest predictor of how much of these foods the kids ate. (2) So the more you sit down and eat together as a family, the more opportunities your baby has to observe your eating habits, resulting in his increased acceptance of new foods.

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 learning to listen to our hunger and fullness cues. Adults who eat regular meals tend to weigh less and make healthier food choices. 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.

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 24% more likely to eat healthy foods, 12% less likely to be overweight and 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating (3). Meal-sharing also creates an opportunity to foster comfort and support for you and your children of all ages.

Read What to Do to help you succeed in serving family meals.

What to Do

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 3 family meals per week because studies indicate that having 3 or more family meals per week leads to the most benefits for kids.

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.

Model healthy eating habits

From the beginning, expose your baby to a variety of healthy food choices and appropriate mealtime behavior. Babies imitate their loved ones so it’s best to serve everyone the same food as often as possible (with textures and pieces altered to match your baby’s abilities). Remember that kids also see the less healthy foods you eat, so try to be mindful of the types of foods you put on the table and into your own mouth. And avoid using food as a reward, as this approach can undermine healthy eating habits.

Do not under nor overplay the less healthy food options

Highly refined foods are everywhere. If you minimize their role in your home and family eating habits while not making much of them when you and your child encounter them elsewhere, you’ll take away their power as a novelty or forbidden food.

Keep your family’s personal preferences in mind, but avoid becoming a short order cook

Remember that home cooking through the ages is simple cooking, putting together whole ingredients with seasoning rather than creating a fancy feast. By saving the complicated or time-consuming recipes for special occasions (unless of course you’re an experienced cook), you’ll be helping family meals become a reality.

Babies and children often accept new foods when paired with foods they already accept. So when you’re meal planning, make sure to include at least one food each family member accepts (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.

Serve foods over and over again, expanding the variety and preparation over time

Babies (and adults) learn to like foods through repeated exposure. 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 accept a new food.

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

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

Don’t pressure your baby or toddler 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 he wants from the foods you put on the table (or in your baby’s case, on the tray). 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 he eats (of the foods you’ve offered) or if he eats at all.

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.

Don’t stress if every meal isn’t the perfect made-from-scratch picture of health

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. It’s 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.

Allow planned snack times to support mealtimes

Offer your baby (and yourself) sit down snacks between meals but not within 1-1.5 hours of the next mealtime. This planning will help ensure that everyone arrives at the table hungry and ready to eat what you’re serving.

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. 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 any arguing or scolding. Enjoy your time together!

Talk to an expert!

Happy Mama Mentors can help make a plan for family meals for your loved ones and help trouble shoot any issues you might be having.

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