Family meal times can be difficult to schedule, do you really need them?

Imagine you’re in a country you don’t know the culture or speak the language. You’re completely dependent on your host. At some point you get hungry, but don’t know when food will be served, but you keep thinking about food and wondering if/when you’ll get fed. Eventually, you’re seated at the table, and you just load up! Who knows when the next meal will come? At some point a little later you’re offered another meal, and same thing, you eat till (past) satisfied. You find some food on a little table one day, and you put it in your pocket for a later time, because who knows when/if you’ll have a meal today? When meals are served, you eat as much as you can, because you never know when food is available, and between meals you constantly worry about and think about when you’ll next be invited to eat.

Children need structure. In a world they don’t understand, with rules shifting and changing seemingly on whim, having a schedule helps children understand their world. And with food being such an important part of life and living, it plays a big role in childhood development, and is a large part of what children think about.

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A meal schedule sends children the message that food will always be provided. They can trust their adults to provide this key source of life. What does that do for them?

  1. They can focus on things other than food and develop hobbies, cultivate interests and worry about kid things
  2. When food is consistent (and kids know it!) they can trust they won’t go hungry, and so will listen to their hunger and fullness levels, and eat in response to their body’s needs- not overeating each time food is presented
  3.  Breaks between eating (ie scheduled meals) allow children to feel hunger and the resulting fullness after eating, and so they eat better. Besides for the physiological need to rest the digestive system for ideal functioning, it’s important to recognize our body’s signals and cues. “Grazing” keeps us at a constant level of fullness- noshing on something as soon as we’re a bit peckish- so we never experience a full hunger. And despite it seeming like kids eat so much when grazing, they actually don’t! And it’s rarely the nourishing meals you serve… 
  4. They eat more fruits and vegetables and more variety of nutrients. Eating a structured meal with family generally tends to improve children’s food intake, possibly because they observe others enjoying food and have positive role-modeling, or the environment is conducive to being adventurous. 
  5. When a variety of food is consistently provided, you can be confident your child is meeting their nutritional needs. Intake for children is over the course of days or weeks, so each meal is another opportunity for them to meet their requirements. Breakfast he only ate berries? Tomorrow’s lunch he may eat a salmon sandwich, and yesterday’s snack he ate cheese and cucumbers.
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Meal components are your decision, but knowing they come frequently, and nutritious food will be offered routinely, can help kiddos feel secure around food, and you relax when your child chooses to eat nothing, small amounts, or lots of one food.

So for your own sanity, and your child’s peace of mind, try a meal and snack schedule. Plan to serve food around every 2-4 hours depending on age. Offer a variety of grains, protein, vegetables & fruit, as well as fun food. Let everyone eat their fill, and then close-up shop. No more food or drink (except water) until the next scheduled eating time.

Have you implemented scheduled meals & snacks? I’d love to hear how that worked out!