How to Feed Kids Well: 8 Ideas for Dads
If you’re struggling with your kids around mealtimes, you’re totally not alone. Parents list it as one of the top five hardest parenting issues they have to deal with.
People without kids say: “What’s so hard? You just cook something and feed the little cuties!” But, those of us with kids know that it can be completely anxiety-inducing as mealtimes approach because kids can do everything from digging their heels in and refusing to eat at all to gobbling up everything on the table and going to the kitchen for more.
It’s hard because there’s no way around it: kids have to learn how to eat for a lifetime to keep their bodies and minds healthy and active. And it’s up to us to teach them this vastly important life skill.
It’s a lot of pressure.
So, how do we relieve the stress of mealtime for our kids (and ourselves)? We’ve put together our top eight tips to help.
- Set a Good Example
- Create (and stick to!) a Meal Routine
- Introduce New Foods + Be Patient
- Make Food Fun + Be Creative
- Don’t Become a Short-order Cook
- Make Mealtime = Storytime
- Respect Your Kid’s Appetite (whatever it is)
- Dessert is Food, Not a Prize
1. Set a Good Example
As with all things parenting, it’s up to us to set an example of what a healthy human does, says, and yes, eats. But that can be one of the hardest tasks on this list.
Remember, we were either shown how to eat healthfully, or we weren’t, and bumping up against what we were taught is something most people don’t ever consider doing. It’s not easy.
If we want our kids to have it better than we did, it begins with parenting better than we were parented–even if we were incredibly well-parented as children.
So, put it at the top of the list to cook for yourself and your children and to eat well together as a family as often as you can. It shows them that you value food as a source of fuel for all the cool things you get to do as a dad.
You have a major influence on what they do and think, and how they’ll think of themselves as they grow up. So, show them how it’s done by starting with you.
2. Create (and Stick to) a Meal Routine
With everyone in your household caught up in the business of living a big life, it’s hard to set a time in which everyone can sit down and eat together, but it’s important.
Why? Because it teaches children that eating is a time to slow down and put aside other things to give the process of eating the respect it deserves.
When you work together to create a time for family meals that everyone can agree to and then hold fast to that time as almost, well…sacred, it will set an early precedent for a lifetime of respecting food as fuel–and family as a safe space–for the lifetime of your child.
This promotes health, well-being, and strength as your children grow into teens and adults (when they’ll need these things more than ever).
3. Introduce New Foods + Be Patient
Growing up a picky eater is hard, and it only gets harder when you’re an adult who struggles with being limited to only the foods you grew up with.
For your picky eater, remember that there’s a real reason why your child won’t eat certain things. Every human has a different set of senses that perceive textures, smells, and tastes very differently than all others.
Think about it: Have you ever been made to eat worms? Or something that smells like sewage? That’s what picky eaters actually struggle with.
Certain foods set off a physical gag reflex in some people and make them sick to even think of eating those foods, and that’s something to be respectful of.
The important thing to remember is that it’s absolutely not personal. Kids don’t refuse food for power, or treats, or because they hate you.
It’s related to a sensitivity to certain textures, smells, tastes, and even the appearance of certain foods that kids can’t just ignore.
When you introduce new food–and you definitely should do so little by little over time–let your kids deal with it in their own way. If they look at it, smell it, taste it, and spit it right out, that’s okay. Try again later (like weeks to months later) without pressure, fanfare, or guilt.
Perhaps they’ll love it, like it, tolerate it, or hate it. Either way, remember that you’ve done your best to guide your kids to broccoli (or whatever it is), and if they absolutely refuse it, it doesn’t mean that:
- they’ll ALWAYS hate it
- they’ll get sick because they didn’t eat it, or
- you’re a failure as a parent.
It simply means that:
- maybe they’ll learn to love it on their own one day
- there are similar vitamins and minerals in a lot of different foods for a reason, and 3) you’ve done your absolute best.
Be patient. Be calm about it. Be respectful of your child’s differences. And keep it up! You’ve got this.
4. Make Food Fun + Get Creative
As much as mealtime should be a time to slow down a bit, that doesn’t mean it should be boring. After all, core memories that are made with food + fun last forever and instill positive values and habits around mealtime that last a lifetime.
So, how do you make food fun? Get creative!
- Cut out shapes from fruits and veggies with cookie cutters.
- Create silly names for everything you make (instead of mac n’ cheese, call it “dad’s goofball mac to please”).
- Let everyone offer an aspect of each meal from setting/decorating the table to preparing a dish.
- Assign a theme to each night or meal (taco night, green food Friday, etc.).
- Instead of preparing everyone’s plate, serve it up family-style like the old days.
- Create a food station and let everyone build their own pizza, tacos, salad, etc.
It doesn’t have to be elaborate or perfect. Just relax and be yourself.
When meals aren’t taken so seriously, everyone can relax and be themselves–which is the foundation of future stories, memories, and positive associations with food and meals for your children that build healthy bodies for long, healthy, happy lives.
5. Don’t Become a Short-Order Cook
There’s nothing more frustrating than cooking an entire meal and one of your kids won’t eat any of it. Or cooking four different meals for each person at the table.
That’s a recipe for absolutely zero fun around food because everyone knows that an unhappy cook is no fun to be around.
So, how do you make sure everyone enjoys mealtime (and eats!) around the same meal?
Offer at least one thing that everyone likes at every meal.
Never send kids off to bed without supper or punish them for not eating no matter how frustrated you are. That teaches them one thing: to fear you. And that doesn’t help them eat–or do anything really but fear you.
Imagine this: you’re a kid who struggles greatly with food that has varying textures in it. What do you do if you get served a casserole every time you eat?
Remember, kids don’t generally refuse to eat as a way to gain anything. They refuse to eat because it literally turns their stomachs to eat certain foods. It’s not personal, and they have to eat, too.
So, to make sure everyone has enough on their plate to give them the fuel they need to do what they need to do, create a list of all the things each child will happily eat.
Ask them to help you make this list, and make it fun.
When you plan meals (or even if you don’t plan them) pull something from each child’s list. That way, if they eat at least one thing on their plate, that should be enough to get them to the next meal or snack.
In case you missed it: The clean plate club has disbanded. It’s never been a good idea to have a child (or even an adult) eat everything on their plate or else. If you were raised that way, we get it. But, that’s no reason to continue to do something we know now isn’t helpful for children.
6. Make Mealtime = Storytime
What’s the best thing to do at mealtimes besides eat?
Bond as a family.
And the best way to bond is to talk. But that can be hard sometimes and create a feeling of pressure.
So, tell stories. Silly stories. Work stories. Stories from when you were little. Stories you make up.
They don’t have to be perfect, or hilarious, or impressive. They just have to get everyone talking.
You can even get creative and have a prompt for every mealtime. “Make up a story about….” Clouds, horses, a basketball, a lost dog. Most nouns work.
It gets everyone talking when you ask the same question of every person at the table (including the baby–which can be hilarious).
If you have kids who have a hard time talking in front of people, give them lots of love and encouragement, but don’t make them do it. It should be something deeply positive and happy for everyone.
If you’re the one who has a hard time speaking at the table, there’s no better place to hone your public speaking skills than in front of a loving, rapt audience who loves you. And, if you start when your children are babies, by the time they can talk (provide feedback), you’ll be a pro at this.
Pro Tip: Set up a basket away from the table where everyone can leave their devices (you, too). Turn off the TV. Put on some quiet music and light candles. Spin a positive mood.
7. Respect Your Kid’s Appetite (whatever it is)
Every child is different, and that includes their appetites. If they eat a lot or a little, children know how hungry they are better than anyone else. Including you.
If your child says they’re still hungry after eating their meal, then give them a very small portion at a time–a few bites. However, they should never be told they’ve had too much to eat already.
Equally, if your child says they’re not hungry, and there’s still food on their plate, they should never be made to eat more than they want.
Pressuring your kids to eat more or less is detrimental to their future physical and mental health because it creates negative habits around food–and that has a high probability of creating negative body images for your children.
The objective is always to help your children create healthy relationships with food.
Therefore, respecting your child’s appetite–no matter what their appetite might be–is a big part of creating that.
Remember: Avoid talking about how you’re trying to lose weight (if you are) or going on a diet in front of your children. They can interpret this in ways that will hurt their own self-esteem and affect their own body image or relationship with food later in their lives. Instead, speak of being dedicated to taking better care of your body through exercise you enjoy and food that is good for you so that you feel better and can do more.
8. Dessert Is Food, Not a Prize
After not eating most of their dinner, your kid says: “Um. Dad? Can I have dessert?” Ooof.
Ah, the dessert tug o’ war between parent and child. It’s as old as, well…parents and children.
How do you deal with that without making dessert the prize for eating everything on their plate?
There are a few ways:
1) Make dessert a part of the meal itself. And, yeah, they’ll probably eat it first and lose their appetite for everything else. Probably. So, to preempt that war, serve healthy desserts that fit right on the plate. Here’s a list of them.
2) If your child didn’t eat most of their meal and said they weren’t hungry anymore but still asked for dessert, have a conversation about it with the intention of understanding what’s going on.
If it’s because they’re still hungry, offer them more of what they liked for dinner. If it’s because they want sugar, let them know that sugar isn’t the best choice for fuel. In child terms: “The truth is that food is fuel so that we can think, move, and do what we need to do in our lives. Sugar gives you the zoomies and then makes you feel awful and crave more sugar.”
The sooner we teach children that good food is good fuel, the better equipped they are to make choices that benefit them. Whatever you decide to do, don’t fight over it. Sugar’s not worth it.
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