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So many parents worry about their children and if they are getting enough to eat, or getting enough variety. So many parents worry that their children may not be growing or gaining weight, and so many parents worry that their child may be having signs of disordered eating. What I know for sure from working for four years on the Eating Disorders Unit at Children’s Hospital Colorado is that the best thing you can do for your children is eat with them. Come together as a family and eat a meal. You will learn more about your children in the 30 minutes you eat a meal with them than you ever thought.
Your family meals do not need to be fancy; it doesn’t even have to be home-cooked. What it does need to be is together. Family meals have so commonly become a meal on the couch in front of the TV or with each person on their phone that family conversation is becoming a lost art.
So many “aha” moments happen for parents when they slow things down and challenge themselves to sit at the kitchen table with their kids. I’ve had parents tell me how hard it is to come together for a meal because of their children’s sports and lack of meal preparation. It shines a light on how as a family they need to work together to communicate and connect. It shows parents how important it is to connect over a meal, especially when they are worried their child may be struggling with being a picky eater or disordered eating.
Tools for your “Dinnertime Toolbox”:
- Family meals at home should last no longer than 30 minutes. If your child is struggling to finish in that time frame, more consultation may be needed, as it may be signs of disordered eating. See below for signs of an Eating Disorder.
- Eat at the table. TV off, phones down. In fact, put all the phones on the table and the first one that grabs their phone during the meal has to do the clean-up. It’s time to connect with each other, and no one else is more important than those sitting around your table.
- If you struggle to find conversation, play games that you keep easily accessible.
- If your family is used to having background noise, turn music on to ease the uncomfortableness.
- Do not comment on food portions. If your child is struggling with eating meals, the last thing that your child wants to hear is how big a portion size is.
- Do not say “good job” after your child eats a meal. If your child is struggling to eat, the last thing they want to hear is “good job, you just ate all that food that you didn’t want to eat, and now you’re struggling with how awful it feels, but I’m so proud of you!”
- No one is allowed to leave the table until the last person has finished, or the 30 minute time frame is up. Nothing is more defeating than eating by yourself and nothing is worse than struggling with eating and being left alone at the table. If 30 minutes seems too long for everyone to sit, start with 15 or 20 and slowly work your way up to 30 minutes.
There is a difference between being a picky eater and showing signs of an eating disorder. Here are some signs that your child’s relationship with food has changed, and that something more may be going on than picky eating:
- Your child starts refuses to eat foods they used to love and eat regularly.
- Your child starts categorizing foods into “good” or “bad.” This may be particularly alarming when your child says their favorite food such as pizza is now a “bad food.”
- Your child says, “that food will make me fat” and will refuse to eat certain foods because of associations they have made with that food.
- Your child only wants to eat a particular way, such as starting to eat vegetarian when your family has always eaten meat.
- Your child takes longer than all other members of your family to eat a meal. It should not take longer than 30 minutes to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner.