Psychologically Speaking: Mealtime manners

Some of the most important "family work" takes place at the dinner table.

food 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
food 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dear Dr. Batya, My daughter has just begun to sit with us for a proper meal. She has watched her older cousins sit at the table and then run off with food in their hands. We'd like to establish good eating habits and a good atmosphere at our dinner table. I have weight problems and if at all possible I'd like our children to grow up with a healthy attitude toward food. Can you give me some ideas? - L.B., Efrat You bring up some really important issues, and it is great that you are thinking ahead so that mealtimes can be a positive experience for your entire family. You can do much to make mealtime both enjoyable and memorable. Some of the most important "family work" takes place at the dinner table and in the kitchen, so it is important from an early age to make eating a family affair whenever possible. Make the time enjoyable and keep stress to a minimum. Here are a few suggestions for making your dining experience a healthy and happy one: Mealtimes offer a great teaching opportunity for future socialization. Teach and praise your daughter for such appropriate behavior as staying seated, using utensils, chewing in small pieces, not talking with food in her mouth and so forth. Discussion can be done naturally through modeling appropriate behavior. There is never a reason to make fun of her or pick on her around anything connected with eating. You'd be amazed at how many people make eating into an issue for one reason or another. Keep portions and plate size small. It is better that she ask for more than to never finish what is on her plate. New foods, tastes and textures may take a bit of getting used to for some kids. If you'd like to add interest, remember toast can be cut in pretty shapes, broccoli can look like trees and bananas and potatoes make great boats. Mealtimes should be pleasant. This is a good time to chat about what went on during the day and other topics of interest to your daughter, not the time to lecture, nag or watch TV. Involve her as much as possible even though she is young. Otherwise, she'll get bored and will want to leave the table before she's finished eating. Whenever possible, meals should not feel rushed, nor do they have to drag on forever. Don't be tempted to force your child to eat or have her feel that she must finish everything on her plate to please you. It is better to let your daughter understand her own body signals that suggest she is full. When children lose interest in the food or get up from the table, they are generally not hungry. You want to encourage her to sit at the table while eating and not graze all day with distractions. Schedule meals at fairly regular times so your daughter will begin to anticipate a rhythm to her day. Desserts can consist of fruit and don't have to be associated with sugary or fattening treats. Special treats are special because they're not offered all the time but only on special occasions. If your child is not hungry at mealtime, it is possible that she is filling up in between with too much liquid (especially if she still takes a bottle) or eating too many snacks. There are lots of nutritious snacks that kids can enjoy, such as cut-up fruit, carrot and celery sticks and raisins. Let your daughter know that she needs to finish her meal or a sizable portion to get a dessert or snack. The goal is to encourage healthy eating and not holding out for junk food at a later time. Let your daughter know the rules for eating in the house. If all eating and drinking is done at the table, then be consistent in not letting her walk around your house or any one else's with a bottle or snack. Our kids also knew the rule was "nutritious before non nutritious" and they understood this from a surprisingly early age. Involve your daughter in the kitchen. Let her help you wash the vegetables when young, cut them as she gets older and make a recipe with you as she gets older still. Show her pictures in cookbooks and let her play with flour, decorate cookies and other fun things so that she sees the kitchen as a fun place to be. Teach your daughter from an early age that we wash our hands before we eat, and we brush our teeth afterward. Good hygiene starts very early and goes a long way. Try not to make food a major focus but focus on healthy eating instead. Recognize that toddlers and others may be very picky eaters and can eat the same meal every day for weeks and then suddenly won't touch a certain food. Toddlers won't always eat a well-balanced meal and that's usually okay. If you are concerned that your child is living on one food or question whether she simply photosynthesizes and doesn't appear to eat at all, seek reassurance. Usually kids will eat when they are hungry. If you are ever worried about your daughter's eating, check out your concerns with your pediatrician. If necessary, he can refer you to a dietician or clinical psychologist, depending on the nature of your concern. Regardless of the age of a child, there always seems to be some concern or another around food, its meaning, and how food can be used within a family for issues small and large. Judging from the obesity statistics, teenage anorexia and a natural Jewish predisposition to see food as a major part of life, having a healthy outlook from the start is a great gift to give to any child. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. [email protected]