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7 dinnertime habits to improve your child's health

Wednesday 2 May 2018

A mum, dad, boy and girl smile for the camera in front of their dinner table.
How your kids experience food as a child can affect their eating habits for life.

Sometimes the best things you can do for your child’s health are the simplest. Follow these steps for creating a dinnertime routine that can help your children develop healthy habits they’ll rely on for years to come.

1. Make dinnertime (or breakfast-time or lunchtime) family time

Shared family time is important in shaping children’s future habits and lifestyle. Eating dinner with your kids is one way to spend time together and can be beneficial for them in many ways. In fact, studies show that when families eat meals together, the individual family members eat more nutritious food than if they were to eat alone.

When you model good eating habits – like eating vegetables – in front of them, your kids will be more likely to develop good eating habits too. Even if they don’t eat the broccoli themselves, if they see you eat it, it helps them understand that this is a vegetable that people eat and enjoy, and a healthy food option.

Family dinnertime also allows time for social interaction. Positive relationships between parents and children are shown to impact the child’s mental wellbeing in the short and long term. Make dinnertime a safe space where children can come with stories, questions and concerns. If the family isn’t able to eat dinner together make another mealtime, like breakfast or weekend lunches, your family meal.

2. Have a go at ‘parent provides, child decides’ mealtimes

Did you grow up in a household where you had to eat everything on your plate before you left the table? While it’s a rule often set with the best of intentions, this can actually encourage children to develop negative relationships with foods they are forced to eat. It can also cause them to ignore their natural bodily signals that tell them when they are full and should stop eating.

Try to think about meal times as a share of responsibilities between you and your child. It is your job as a parent to provide healthy food options for your child, and their responsibility to decide what they put in their body.

Instead of dishing up a plateful for your child, try providing all the food for the meal on the table, and have children serve themselves. This will give them the opportunity to try new foods without the pressure of eating a whole serve. It will also teach them to self-regulate how much they eat by paying attention to their own hunger cues. Learning to understand these cues is a good habit for children to develop to help them achieve and maintain a healthy weight in the future.

You can make this change in how you serve meals slowly. Try putting a bowl of vegetables or salad on the table for children to serve themselves from. You can find healthy vegetable bowl and salad recipes like Roast Vegetable Salad or  Fiesta Salad on Healthier. Happier.

A dinner table, with bowls of salad, quiche and bread available for family members to serve themselves.

3. Mix up the options

Keep in mind that it can take children as many as 15 tries before they’ll accept a new food. Having a variety of food available for them to try often is an important part of expanding their diet.

You can find tips and tricks for feeding fussy eaters here.

4. Make meals screen-free

Studies show that eating while you’re distracted can cause you to ignore your body’s hunger cues and overeat. This is true for children too, so make mealtimes a moment to switch off the TV, put down phones and sit at the table away from computers. This will also help encourage social interaction.

5. Have water available

Make your dinner table a ‘no sugary drink zone’ by having water available as the beverage of choice. Sugary drinks like soft drinks, energy drinks, iced teas and fruit juices can contain a lot of kilojoules and are linked to excess weight gain and tooth decay in children. Water is the best choice of beverage for children, and reduced-fat milk can also be offered to children from two years of age.

6. Plan for regular meals and schedule snacks thoughtfully

Keeping your mealtimes regular will help your child to understand when to expect food, and how their hunger cues relate to when they eat meals and snacks. You’ll also have the best chance of your child eating a nutritious dinner if they come to the table hungry. Avoid filling them up with snacks or drinks too close to dinner.

7. Take sugary and salty condiments off the table

Adding extra sauces and dressings to meals can add a lot of extra sugar and salt to your child’s diet. Don’t make it the norm to set your table with extra condiments: if you don’t have the tomato sauce out, they won’t reach for it to add to their food. Remember to role model too – don’t reach for the salt before you taste your food.

You don’t need to revolutionise your household’s dinnertime routine in one day. Just a few tweaks here and there can help you pave the way for healthier habits for your whole family.

More reading

Find more articles about family meals and healthy eating habits here:

Making mealtimes positive, relaxed and social

How to get your kids to eat fruit and veggies

Six ways to improve meal times with your children

Making family meals enjoyable: six tips

Ask the experts: what food and drink goals should you really be making?

Growing good habits

Eat for Health

Healthier. Happier.

Last updated: 2 May 2018