Use Mealtime to Teach Kids About Proper Nutrition

By: Rallie McAllister, MD

Rounding up your kids and shepherding them to the table for regular meals together is one of the best ways to teach them about proper eating habits and good nutrition. Although the foods that your kids eat are important, your presence at the table is critical.

Even when parents don't intentionally set out to make mealtimes educational affairs, kids learn a lot just by watching their moms and dads. Mimicking their parents' behaviors, kids learn to exercise portion control, acquire acceptable table manners, and develop tastes for a variety of nutritious foods.

Set the Tone

Moms and dads are in charge of setting the tone for each meal, which should emphasize relaxed dining and pleasant conversation. If you have young children, mealtimes will be a lot smoother if you have everything you need on the table before you sit down to eat. It's hard to enjoy your meal when you're jumping up every few minutes to retrieve forgotten items like bibs, sippy cups, and feeding spoons.

If your kids are teenagers, try to navigate conversations away from controversial and emotionally charged issues so that your dinner table doesn't become a war zone. Make sure that your kids know that mealtimes should be peaceful and pleasant for everyone present.

Limit TV Dining

One of the most important steps you can take to promote positive interaction among family members is to turn off the television before you sit down at the table. Research has demonstrated that among families in which TV viewing is a normal part of the mealtime routine, diets include more pizzas, snack foods, and sodas and fewer fruits and vegetables than families in which eating and watching television are separate activities. The more often kids eat their meals in front of the television, the more likely they are to be overweight.

Slower is Better

Try to keep the pace of your meals slow and relaxed and spend as much time in conversation as you spend eating. It takes about twenty minutes for your stomach to communicate the "I'm full" message to your brain for processing. It takes another moment or two for your brain to send a message to your hand that you've had enough to eat, and it's time to put the fork down. If you have a family of fast eaters who like to scarf down the entire meal in five minutes flat, they'll probably end up eating more than their bodies need. Before their brains get the signals that their stomachs are full, they'll be reaching for seconds. If your kids need help slowing down while they're eating, serve plenty of fiber-rich foods. Because they require more chewing, they take longer to eat than low-fiber foods. When your kids slow down the pace, they'll be able to focus more fully on the foods that they're eating, and this higher level of awareness will help them eat less at each meal.

Keep It Interesting

Children need a variety of nutritious foods for proper growth and development. To introduce your kids to different foods, try serving a new fruit, vegetable, or entrée once or twice a week. Make sure to serve additional items that you know your kids will eat, just in case the new food isn't a hit. Even if your kids won't eat it this time, don't throw in the towel prematurely. If it's a food that you enjoy, make it again for yourself. Ask your children to at least taste it each time you serve it, and to keep any less than complimentary comments to themselves. Kids eventually learn to eat the foods that are put before them on a regular basis, especially when they see their parents eating and enjoying them. There's just no other way to explain the fact that children in other countries learn to eat and enjoy raw fish, the slimy internal organs of sheep and goats, and even creepy crawly insects.

Get Kids Involved

One of the best ways to motivate your kids to try a new food is to allow them to be involved in its preparation. Instead of shooing the kids out of the kitchen, invite them to come in and help you. When kids help out in the kitchen, they learn about more than just nutrition. They get fun, real-life lessons in math, science, and reading. Working as a team with siblings and parents to build their culinary creations, they'll be making warm memories that they'll cherish for a lifetime.

Rallie McAllister, MD, the author of The Busy Couples Guide to Great Sex: The Medically Proven Program to Boost Low Libido (LifeLine Press, September 2003), and Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim (LifeLine Press, September 2003), runs a family practice specializing in nutrition, wellness, and weight loss called Healthy Solutions, in Kingsport, Tennessee. Dr. McAllister is the creator and popular host of Rallie On Health, a health magazine TV show with over 1 million viewers in the five-state area of eastern Tennessee. Millions across the country also know her for her weekly nationally syndicated column called "Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister." Dr. McAllister lives with her husband and three children in Kingsport, Tennessee. Visit Rallie at

Article Comments: Leave Comment

Other Articles In: Healthy Eating