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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Family meals: Getting the meal habit

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

To entice yourself and your family to have meals, you have to truly enjoy the food. Start by eating what you eat now; round up the family to eat together, and enjoy your time with one another. Do your jobs with feeding and let your child do his with eating.  

Meals must have rewarding and familiar food

To encourage ourselves and others to have family meals, start with structure first and let concerns about food selection wait until structure is thoroughly in place. For most families, that can take a year or more. If you currently short-order cook for your children or let them graze on pizza, chicken nuggets, sodas and chips, you will have an uphill battle if they start by offering broiled chicken, fat-free vegetables and whole grain rice. Here is what to emphasize to make meals worthwhile:

Eat what you are eating now, just have it at regular meal- and snack-times

Having regular family meals means that the same foods show up again and again. If you are careful not to pressure your child to eat, he will sneak up on those foods and learn to eat them.

Change the how of feeding now; worry about the what later – or let it worry about itself. Pizza makes a fine meal, so do chicken nuggets and chips. Add in some milk and you have a meal. If the shock of drinking milk is too great, make the beverage (gasp) soda. Remember, the priority right now is structure. Put the food in serving dishes – or pans – or pans – or carry-out containers – on the table, round up the eaters, and let everyone pick and choose from what you have made available. Don’t pressure and don’t make substitutes. Follow the division of responsibility with feeding: do your jobs with feeding and let your children do theirs with eating.   

Give sit-down snacks between times  

For children and grownups to arrive at the table hungry and ready to eat, they can’t have free access to food or drinks between times, except for water. If your child is accustomed to snack-type food, even if it is forbidden food, start by including it at regular, sit-down snacks. 

Be considerate without catering with meal-planning  

Pair familiar with unfamiliar food, preferred with less-preferred food; include whatever you define as bread as well some other starchy food such as rice or potatoes. Children and other inexperienced eaters can generally eat starchy foods when all else fails; include butter to make food appealing and to provide a caloric fudge factor. Then let your child have seconds and even thirds of the food s/he can manage, without having to finish, eat, or even taste the less-preferred foods.

Give time and reassurance with new foods 

Once the cook is ready to experiment with broadening out the menu, reassure everyone they don’t have to eat, or even taste, the new food. Name the food, say you like it, say ”you can try it if you want but you don’t have to.” Know that at most meals, children eat only 2 or 3 foods and what they eat one day, they don’t another.

Understand how children, and grownups, learn to like new food 

Having regular family meals means that the same foods show up again and again. If you are careful not to pressure your child to eat, he will sneak up on those foods and learn to eat them. He will look and watch you eat, but not taste. He will allow the food beside, or on, his plate but won’t taste it. He will put the food in his mouth and take it out again. Eventually, he will get comfortable enough with the taste and texture that he will eat it. Sometimes.


For more about managing family meals, see Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family.


Related issues of Family Meals Focus

More about feeding


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