Instagram and Pinterest are jam packed with recipes and inspiration for serving food to kids. Much of it is well-intentioned, finding cute ways to get nutritious foods into tiny humans, day in and day out. But it is also time consuming for the parents and a bit disingenuous when it comes to teaching kids an important life skill.
Eating throughout life is about so much more than vitamins and minerals. It’s about healthy routines that anchor us on the busiest of days. It celebrates communities that come together to share traditions and customs. And it embodies the great joy that comes from savoring something truly delicious. If this is what we want to teach our kids about eating, then we need to stop teaching them to eat like a kid and start teaching them to eat like a (healthy) human.
Step 1: Establish a family eating schedule.
First and foremost, any adults in the house should be eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. It should be happening at a table, and around the same times every day. When babies start eating solids around six months old, it’s ideal to feed them during one or two of the set family meal times each day. Pull the high chair close to the table and spoon feed them between bites of your own meal. Or, for those using the baby-led weaning approach, the child can simply self-feed while you eat your food. By around nine months old almost all babies are developmentally ready to self-feed, so it becomes that much more important that they eat right alongside their parents at regularly scheduled meal times.
Step 2: Serve everyone the same thing.
This applies to kids as young as nine months. Around nine months babies learn to use their thumb and forefinger to pick up small pieces of food, also known as the pincer grasp. Before that you need to serve either spoon-fed purees or long, soft logs of food that they can hold in their fist and safely chew. But with the pincer grasp in play, you can literally feed your baby exactly what you are eating, just cut into very small pieces. Is it messy? Yes. But does it take longer to clean up than it would to cook two separate meals? I doubt it!
Step 3: Serve balanced meals most of the time.
As an adult, you possess a level of logical thinking and impulse control that a child simply hasn’t mastered yet. As a caregiver, it is your job to provide nutrient-dense, balanced meals the majority of the time. You also have the privilege of serving special treats on occasion! Regardless, the only decisions a young child should be making at mealtime are whether to eat the food served and how much of the food to eat. Sure, they can decide the order they eat the foods in, or perhaps to only eat certain items on the plate. They can deconstruct a casserole and only eat the peas if they so choose! But they do not get to demand replacement foods, a dessert that wasn’t on the original menu or ketchup served at every single meal. A three-year-old cannot be expected to devise a balanced menu, so don’t put that responsibility on them.
Step 4: Have fun! Involve your kids in cooking and meal planning.
Serve a variety of foods in a variety of ways. Play music during meals and talk about your day. Don’t pressure yourself to make perfect kid-food and don’t pressure your kids to eat what is served. By focusing more on the act of dining and less on the act of eating, meals become fun for the whole family.