Eating with Kids: 5 Steps to Create a Nourishing Eating Environment
Early, frequent, and positive experiences around food, cooking, and eating can only support kids in developing a lifelong, positive relationship with food
Eating with kids can be fun and challenging. There is an inherent uncertainty in eating with kids that is good for all of us to experience! My hope is this blog provides you with ideas on how to eat with kids it in a feasible and sustainable way and why it is important in their growth and development, as well as to disordered eating prevention.
First, A Story: Mittagsessen in der Kita (Lunch at Daycare)
Again, a Systems Approach to Eating Disorder Prevention
How Kid's Self-Worth Could be Impacted at Eating Together
5 Steps to Creating a Nourishing Eating Environment
Mittagsessen in der Kita
Lunch at Daycare
My daughter goes to a German daycare, called Kinderkrippe. It is for babies and toddlers up to 3 years old. During the first month of her time there, I went with her. This is called Eingewöhnungszeit, or settling in period. The first day, we went for 30 minutes together. The second, an hour. Eventually, I was leaving for a bit then coming back. You get the picture.
One of the things I witnessed during the time I was there was one hour long Mittagsessen, or lunch.
All 8 kids from her group would sit down at a table fit for their size together. They would light a candle, and sing a song. Then, one of the kids would pass around ceramic plates, glass cups and silverware to each of the other kiddos. The first course, soup! This typically includes noodle soup, beet soup, cauliflower and potato soup, pumpkin soup, and more. The second course (with a new plate of course!) is a meal with at least 3-4 foods. Something like spätzle, sauce with meat, and carrots. The last course, various fruit.
I was so excited to see this routine! The independence and encouragement the kids got around eating plus the time they had to eat made so much sense to me. The kiddos were never forced to take a certain food or finish their plate- they were given autonomy and trust. They sat the entire time, engaged with the meal. And, after eating, they washed their hands and mouth, blew out the candle, ending the ritual by singing again.
Again, a Systems approach
Food is essential for wellbeing and for emotional security.
If we do not see food and eating as essential for both wellbeing and emotional security for our kiddos, there may be a risk for developing disordered eating. We talked in my last post about the importance of having kids cook and bake, of exposing them to food in the hands-on, fun and dynamic environment of the kitchen.
How do we eat the food we cooked and baked with our kids?
When we think about disordered eating prevention, I think about the systems of food around us- the complex global food system itself and more specifically, our family and community food table systems- where we eat, with who, when, why, what, and more.
In many ways, we have traded the tradition and ritual of growing, procuring, prepping, cooking, celebrating and eating food together for the tradition and ritual of counting calories, reading labels, eating alone, dining fast, eating for weight loss and 'health', and using food to cope versus celebrate.
I can’t help but think how knowing where our food comes from (a privilege these days for several reasons) and how we engage and plan to eat together could impact our risk for disordered eating.
How Kid's Self Worth Could be Impacted by Eating Together
Besides the potential link to disordered eating prevention, eating meals with kids is important because:
Meals create family and friendships by sharing food
Kids receive offerings and are shown care and love
Kids learn boundaries, self-regulation, portion control, and choice
There are benefits in practicing verbal language skills through talking at the table
Eating together enforces healthy social relationships
Kids learn about food, where it comes from, how its made, and more
Tactile experiences allow kids to experience different feelings and textures
Providing structure at a meal allows for expectations to be met, providing security
There are opportunities for helping out and contribution to the group
It gives everyone a break in the day that can enhance the individual and family systems
I often think about the idea of belonging versus ‘fitting in’ as so eloquently put by Brene Brown.
Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. — Brené Brown
When we eat meals together, with people who are trusted and see us as innately good human beings, where we are given opportunities for choice, contribution and self-regulation, there is potential for a sense of belonging.
From belonging, we can develop a sense of self and self-worth, through something that ties us to others in an authentic, grounding way. We know self-worth is a protective factor for disordered eating.
Regular, routine and fun meals with kids is powerful!
5 Steps to Creating a Nourishing Eating Environment
How can you create a positive food environment for your kiddos and communities? Here are some ideas, which are never too late to start!
1. Assess Your Capacity.
Decide on a time, location, and feasible routine for you and your community/family. This could be 1-2 dinners per week at the table, sitting, enjoying the meal or a daily breakfast.
For example, I was talking to a 15 year old client and his mom the other day about clearing off the kitchen table. It was full of of his Mom’s work papers, and this fact made it hard for them to use the tables for meals. So instead, they would eat food on the couch while watching a TV show. Both the client and his Mom felt they wanted to eat together at the table so they could connect, talk and be more present with food and each other. They committed to cleaning off the table and doing 2 dinners at it each week.
Some questions to consider:
Who do you want at the meal?
Who does the meal preparation?
What needs to happen to make sure there is food available and prepared?
What time is the meal? Is this timing appropriate for the kid(s)?
Do you have enough time? If not, what needs to change?
How many times per week is this feasible?
What are your motivations for making this part of the routine?
What challenges do you anticipate and any strategies to overcome them?
2. Ensure enough time and reduce distractions.
Kids need time to eat. And, adults do too! Too often we are running from one thing to the next, eating while watching TV or reading or working. (Nothing wrong with that but when it becomes the norm, can create a lot of distracted eating and lack of connection with yourself and others.) By taking the time to eat, turning off TVs/tablets/phones, etc, we are better able to taste the food, enjoy, check in with her hunger and fullness, and be present with those around us.
3. Encourage autonomy and flexibility for the kiddos.
This can come in many forms.
Try empowering kids to:
Choose their own plates, bowls, silverware
Serve themselves from a larger plate with offerings
Set the table with placemats, napkins, silverware, etc.
Let them choose what foods they want
Sit in a seat appropriate for their size
Allow glass cups and 'real' plates
Have them help with clean up- i.e. washing dishes, wiping spills, etc.
Blow out a candle at the end of the meal
Choose a song to sing or listen to
Tell everyone how their day was
4. Put out all foods at once.
Yes, even fun foods. I have had clients look at me sideways when I suggest this, but try it and end up seeing how their kiddos self-regulate after a while. When fun foods, in particular, do not become special treats or items that are only allowed if a kid finishes their vegetables or eats enough, the kids learn it is not restrictive, they can have it any time.
This is also good practice for those of us healing our own relationship with food!
5. Tell a story.
Stories bind us and illustrate our lives.
At meal times, engage with each other. Avoid body and food talk that is not supportive and nourishing. Some questions to consider:
What happened to you today?
What do you want to tell your kids about the food they are eating?
Where does your food come from?
What ties the food you’re eating to your culture, religion, tradition, etc?
How does the food taste, smell, feel in your mouth, etc?
What is on your mind that you'd like to share?
What has been hard for you today?
It is exciting to think about engaging with kiddos and our communities/families around the table, picnic blanket, fire, etc. The exercise of getting together, sharing a meal regularly and allowing kiddos the opportunity to learn how to eat in a way that is supportive of their emotional and physical wellbeing can be a huge investment in the future. And, it really helps us adults also take the time out of our busy days to sit and be with kids and our community, and continue to form our own relationship with food.
Want to have strategies for your family about how to create an environment around food and body that benefits your kids? Contact me or make an appointment!
All pictures are my own unless noted.