No parent wants to prepare a delicious, healthy dinner…only to have a child pick at her food. Or demand something else. Or whine for dessert right at the start. We just want her to eat what we’ve taken the trouble to make.
There are lots of great techniques to encourage children to try new foods and to accept what the family eats, but my favorite is to let the child get “the right amount of hungry.”
When kids aren’t hungry enough at dinnertime, usually because of a too-late or too-large afternoon snack, they are much more likely to be picky at dinner. When their bellies are mostly full already, they can afford to say no to the food on the table. When they aren’t very hungry, it’s no biggie to them if they end up missing dinner. So they act out or place demands, because there’s not much risk in doing so.
Conversely, a hungry child is much more motivated to eat. (Even for an adult, food is much more appealing when you’re hungry, right?) The pickiness antics go way down with a hungry belly.
Now, you might be thinking, what if my child is too hungry? Then he’ll get cranky, and will have a meltdown, and… Well, I agree with you! I wouldn’t suggest letting children get so hungry that they get grumpy. It wouldn’t be healthy for him to have that low of blood-sugar, and grumpiness doesn’t help him eat a proper dinner, either.
The French, of course, are known for their food culture, and they prioritize food and family meals. They solve this issue by putting their children on a meal schedule – 4 meals a day: breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner. It spaces out eating enough that children develop an appetite between meals. It also sets the expectations for children to know when food is coming, and, for many children, setting clear expectations can help avoid tantrums. (For a great read on this, check out French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon.)
While the French system may or may not work for your family, it certainly pays off to notice your child’s appetite and interest in food, and to establish your own family’s system for how often to eat. Aiming for “the right amount of hungry” will go a long way in minimizing mealtime battles and broadening your child’s interest in your family’s food.
Chef Hilla Abel helps busy parents prepare healthy food easily and enjoyably. She's a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts, and currently serves on the faculty of Bauman College, a holistic nutrition and culinary school.
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