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Want your child to be a less picky eater? Try lightening up the mood at mealtimes

A recent study found that the emotional climate around family meals has an impact on young children’s consumption of healthful foods.

Just sitting together at meals may not be enough. The ambience of the meals also matters.

Parents who want their preschool children to be less picky eaters and to consume more fruits and veggies may want to look closely at their family’s mood during mealtimes.

A recent study found that the emotional climate around family meals has an impact on young children’s consumption of healthful foods.

“Having more positive mealtimes, where people are enjoying themselves, where there’s mutual warmth and engagement, makes it a little bit easier for children to approach healthy foods,” says Jacklyn Saltzman, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, in a released statement. “When you have a negative family mealtime, you don’t want to sit there and try a new thing, enjoy a new texture or cajole your child into trying something new. You just want to get through it.”

“So having more positive mealtimes, particularly for parents, might make it a little easier for them to help their children make healthier eating choices later on,” she adds. 

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Plenty of other research has suggested that families who eat meals together are more likely to consume healthful foods — and less likely to have overweight children.

This new study suggests, however, that just sitting together at meals may not be enough. The ambience of the meals also matters. 

Details of study

For the study, Saltzman and her colleagues analyzed data collected from 74 parents with preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5 who were participating in a larger research project known as the STRONG Kids Panel Study. The data came from two questionnaires about mealtimes filled out by the parents over a 20- to 23-month period. Each family also had one meal observed in the home by research assistants trained to count the number of times moms and children expressed positive and negative emotions.

(Moms were the primary focus of this particular study, although the researchers say they hope to expand the research to include dads and other family members in later studies.)

“What we found was that there were two groups of families,” says Saltzman. “We had families where moms were expressing a lot of positive emotion and very little relative negative emotion, and those were our ‘positive expressers.’ The other group was our ‘all expressers’ where moms were expressing about the same amount of positive and negative emotions.”

Interestingly, the impact of the two groups of families on children’s emotions was the same. 

But greater positivity during the mealtimes did have an effect on what the children ate. When the mood at the dinner table was more pleasant or happy, children ate about one extra serving, on average, of healthy foods, such as fruits or vegetables.

What parents can do

The study has its limitations, of course, particularly the fact that it included a relatively small number of families. In addition, much of the data came from questionnaires, which the parents may not have filled out accurately, and a single home visit. Parents and children alike might have been on their best behavior during those visits.

But parents who are struggling to get their preschoolers to be less picky at the dinner table may want to give positivity a try.

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And that doesn’t mean becoming unnaturally cheerful during meals.

“First of all, I wouldn’t tell parents to just be more positive — to just slap a smile on your face — because in the face of a picky-eating preschooler or any other mealtime challenge, that’s just not going to work,” says Saltzman. 

She and her colleagues did identify, however several parental behaviors that appear to help promote positive mealtimes for families:

  • Clearly communicate with your child what is expected during mealtimes.
  • Set rules and routines, such as having meals around the same time and in the same room or setting.
  • Give your child an age-appropriate job, such as putting out the napkins or setting other items on the table.
  • Practice regulating your own emotions during mealtimes. Try breathing exercises or counting to 10 in your head.
  • Encourage your children to express themselves with words rather than with screaming.
  • Don’t force the issue too much. Suggest your child to try a bite, but if that doesn’t work, move on.

“It’s important for your child to try new foods,” says Saltzman, “but equally important not to force it on your child if they’re really not liking it after about seven to eight different exposures to the food.”

FMI: You’ll find the study on the Journal of Pediatric Psychology’s website.