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Mealtime with children: Let them feed themselves

photo courtesy nvainio via flickr

It’s fair to say that mealtime with children may not always be the most appetizing experience. Peas all over their face. Oatmeal in their hair. Some of each course being spit back in your direction. It’s magical.

But for parents, serving a child during a family meal and watching them feed themselves can be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Now, a new understanding of children and portion control shows that in addition to letting children feed themselves, it may also be beneficial for parents to take a hands-off approach when it comes to serving their kids during mealtime.

According to recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), parents should let kids as young as 2 years old serve themselves at home. Children who serve themselves at mealtime learn portion control by seeing how much they put on their plate and how much of what’s on their plate they actually eat.

“The idea is that kids learn to adjust how much they take depending on how hungry they are and how much will satisfy them,” said Jayne A. Fulkerson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Nursing and the Director of the Center for Child and Family Health Promotion Research. “In other words, when children feed themselves they start to learn cues from their own bodies about when they’re full.”

Parents sometimes find that letting kids make their own food choices can be difficult, not only to watch, but because children do not always choose the food parents would like them to eat. For example, kids may not take any broccoli but instead load up on bread.

“To avoid letting kids make poor food choices, parents should try to make only or mostly healthy food choices available at meals so any food choice the child makes is a good choice,” suggested Fulkerson. “Parents can also be good role models by setting an example for what to eat and how much to take.”

An important way parents can show their kids what to eat is by eating together as a family.  In general, children who eat more family meals have a better dietary intake than those who don’t eat as a family.

“Overall, studies of family meals consistently show that frequency is associated with better dietary intake, self-esteem and grades and less substance use among children and adolescents,” said Fulkerson. “Eating together also gives families a chance to slow down, feel a sense of unity and connect with one another.”

Establishing mealtime as family time is a good way to teach portion control at a young age, while setting the stage for better dietary habits and psychosocial behaviors down the road. Although a “cloudy with a chance of meatballs” dining experience may be tough to swallow in the toddler years, it’s important to consider all the long-term benefits that come with a little spaghetti in the hair.

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