Tired of hiding the biscuits from your kids and nagging them about eating more fruit? There is an easier way. If you want your children to eat a healthy diet the strategy is simple: Sit down to a family meal - every night.
A recent Harvard study of more than 16,000 nurses' children has given the thumbs up to family dinners. It showed that children who eat with their parents:
- Have healthier diets.
- Are one and a half times more likely to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables every day.
- Have a higher intake of important nutrients such as calcium, iron and the vitamins B and E.
That's great news, but what if your kids need to be dragged kicking and screaming to their dining chairs? Here's how to make them want to sit down to a family meal:
- Include them in preparation. Give kids a reason to be interested in the meal by asking them to get involved in food preparation and the selection of the weekly menu. Even a three-year-old can tear up the leaves for a salad or help set the table. Older children can take on the responsibility for entire meals starting with easier meals like lunch on the weekends.
- Watch table talk. "I did some research with eight to 12-year-old children and found the major reason they liked going to McDonald's or other fast food joints was not the food, but because their mother was in a good mood because she didn't have to cook," says nutritionist Rosemary Stanton. The fact that the family sat around, talked and were nice to each other because they were in public also scored high.
- Serve buffet-style. This works particularly well with fussy eaters. As they serve themselves, kids learn to assess how much food they want and feel they have some say in what they eat. Better still, their plate is empty when they sit down so they can't complain about what's on it.
- Turn off the television. "When children gobble down food while doing something else they get less satisfaction and are more likely to want to snack later," Stanton warns.
- Consider presentation. A fruit salad with apples, bananas and oranges might pale in comparison to a Snickers. But serve that same dish in an attractive bowl with a few chocolate sprinkles on top and your kids will soon be asking for a second helping.
Do you and your partner often work late? Are you a single parent? Don't despair. Make the evening meal feel like a family affair by:
- Eating your meal with the kids instead of waiting for your partner.
- Serving takeaways on dinner plates and eating it at the dining table, preferably with a homemade salad.
- Making a point of eating together on weekends if you can't manage a family meal on week nights.
- Preparing quick, healthy meals with your child's help when you're too tired to make a full meal. Caesar salads with grilled chicken, fresh salad-based sandwiches or even salmon, cheese and tomato on toast are simple nutritious staples.
Not home when they arrive from school? Maintain some control over your child's choice of snacks by:
- Teaching your children how to prepare easy, good-for-you snacks such as a ham salad sandwich.
- Buying fewer biscuits, crisps, cola and other snack foods. If it's not there they won't eat it.
- Buying a selection of healthy snack foods that you know your child likes such as their favourite yogurt, fruit and nut mixes or low fat microwave popcorn.