Connecting with your kids at the family table: Social eaters are better eaters

One of my favorite books on kid’s food is Laurie David’s The Family Dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids, one meal at a time. Full of simple strategies for making mealtimes more enjoyable, Laurie makes a key point that is often overlooked in the kid’s food debate: how we eat is as important as what we eat.

As I realized after our family moved to France, Americans spend the least time of any country in the developed world on cooking (30 minutes per day, whereas the French spend, on average, 48 minutes). But the real difference is in how much time we spend eating: less than an hour per day for Americans (and well over two hours per day for the French).

What’s the point of spending all of that time at the table, you’re probably wondering? Well, research shows that people who eat alone tend to eat more overall, and also tend to eat poorer quality food. Research also shows that children are more likely to try new foods if their parents are sitting with them, and try them too (the ‘do as I do, not as I say’ effect!). So we know that children will eat better if they eat with other people.

But Laurie David’s book captures another important issue, that is more rarely discussed. Children’s emotional relationship to food (which is so central to healthy eating when they become adults) is fostered at the table in interaction with other adults. If the family table is a serene haven in a busy day, then a positive relationship is fostered.

Admittedly, with two very busy children (3 and 7), the table doesn’t feel very peaceful all of the time. But I’ve found that conversation is absolutely critical to capturing my daughters’ interest, and keeping them at the table. One of my earlier tactics was to make up stories, but I soon ran out of repertoire. Here’s where Laurie’s book was helpful: it has lots of great suggestions for conversation starters, games, and other tips and tricks for keeping children interested and happy at the table. Many of these ideas are commonly used by French families, by the way.

Is it hard to make time in our busy lives for eating together? Definitely! Both my husband and I work full time, and we don’t have any help at home. Cooking when we get home from work is always a scramble.

But despite this I’ve taken Laurie David’s message to heart, and we’ve cut back on kid’s after-school activities, in order to make sure we eat together as a family most nights of the week.

So thanks, Laurie, for an inspirational book!

7 thoughts on “Connecting with your kids at the family table: Social eaters are better eaters

  1. Great questions! I’ve looked at various sources for stats on eating disorders, and most seem to indicate that the rate of eating disorders (e.g. anorexia, bulimia) is about the same in France and the US. I think that your description of ‘mindful’ eating sums it up nicely. Note: I am not suggesting this is the perfect method. But it is a method that works well for teaching children (especially younger children) how to eat a broad range of foods.

    One point about the French approach: because you follow a schedule, there is less focus on negotiating ‘if’ and ‘when’ to snack. So you don’t have to negotiate with your child (or with yourself) about whether it’s time to eat; you simply eat at the usual time. This leads to less conflict and debates over control (which is associated with eating disorders).

    Also: if you eat more ‘energy dense’ foods, then you will feel less hungry between meal times. This is not only a question of glycemic index. What you need is foods that are high on the ‘satiety’ index (usually, these are also very healthy foods). As a general rule, protein-rich foods (meats, legumes) and whole grains, combined with vegetables and a bit of healthy fats (very important!), provide a high satiety meal. This basically describes the Mediterranean diet. If you eat this way, you generally won’t feel as hungry between meals.

    Hope this helps and would love to hear your updates – hope is goes well!

  2. I just read your book and love it! Can’t wait for the cookbook :).

    My girls (also 7 and 3) are relatively adventurous eaters (by American standards, i.e., they eact broccoli and asparagus and will try new things. That said, my 3 year old constantly begs for snacks and we all eat too many snacks (even if they are often applesauce, carrots and hummus, etc.). Neither my kids nor I ever feel hungry and often fill time or anxiety with a quick (if healthy) snack. So I can definitely use your ideas. Thank you!

    My question is this. My (American, semi-picky) husband is a bit skeptical about the rules and making eating too “regimented” and “too much of a focus.” In particular, he’s worried about eating disorders down the road. Can you please speak to eating disorders in France and which component(s) of your plan can help avoid this pitfall and how? I hope that mindful eating (scheduled, purposeful, wholesome and enjoyable) will help avoid both obesity but also eating disorders. But not sure, nor sure how to convince him.

    Now that I think of it, I imagine encouraging them to “feel hungry” between meals may also be his concern. I know he snacks between meals (healthy if portable) to maintain his blood sugar. He’s mindful of the glycemic index of foods, avoiding both spikes and dips in his blood sugar. Any thoughts on how your plan fits with the current ideas of eating 5 meals a day or how to address his question/concern on this front?

    A lot to ponder. Thanks for getting us started. Can’t wait to get Laurie David’s book, too!

  3. Pingback: Slow food is for kids too! Celebrating Terra Madre Day with a preschooler’s potluck « Karen Le Billon

  4. Hi Michelle
    So glad you appreciated this article! Teaching them to eat well is definitely constructive! They’ll develop lifelong healthy eating habits that will stand them in good stead. But I also agree with you that our culture doesn’t value this so much, and so I had similar sentiments to yours when my two daughters were both babies. I really learned a lot from my French relatives, who think that the early years are the best time to be learning how to eat well. Introducing them to lots of new tastes before they hit the ‘no’ phase is a great idea for example!
    KLB

  5. I am a stay at home mom of 1 year old twin girls. I really appreciated this article. The babies and I spend a ton of time eating together…well, more like me preparing food and then watching them eat. In fact, it’s like the highlight of our days and every activity is scheduled around our meals. Reading your article soothed my anxious American inner voice that was telling me we should be doing something more constructive.

    Thanks!

  6. So true Kia…” Eating together is nourishing for our bodies and our souls!”

    But when we started, I did find it difficult to create the calm atmosphere needed to feel this way. Which is why I appreciated Laurie’s book so much!

  7. Our family loves Laurie David’s Family Dinner book! Not only is it beautifully put together (talk about eye candy!) but it’s pages are filled with delicious recipes and fun conversation ideas! Her book really helps to remind us parents how spending time together and eating with our children is about so much more than just getting food into our bodies. Eating together is nourishing for our bodies and our souls!

    We’re all so busy these days but in that rush we must take time to stop and think about what memories we want to create because our children aren’t going to be with us forever. One day when they are off following their own adventures we will long for the days we had them safe and sound under our roof everyday! Making memories doesn’t have to be on some expensive trip, some of the best memories come from the “everyday” moments that we create such as baking a batch of cookies (or in our house kale chips) together, or putting together a fun picnic to eat in the back yard or on the living room floor.

    Another great post Karen…I look forward to reading your next one!

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