Pandemic: That is a relatively new word for me. I’m sure I’ve uttered it a few times over my lifetime, but even as a speech language pathologist (SLP), it’s not a noun that I’ve used often. Now, I'm chatting with three-year-old clients over telehealth and they’re telling me “I love you Melanie! Don’t get coronavirus.” Gosh, how times have changed. Coronavirus: That is definitely not a word I knew when I was three.
Here are the words I use frequently: Food, family mealtimes and picky eating. Although I am an SLP, my entire caseload consists of kids that are extremely picky or fussy eaters. There are several strategies that professionals like me recommend to parents struggling to help their children become more adventurous and try new foods. Regular family mealtimes are priority #1, but before the pandemic, who had time? Life was hectic! Finding time to sit down as a family and enjoy even 20 minutes together over a daily meal was not easy.
Parents truly want to have regular mealtimes with their kids! In fact, studies cited by the American College of Pediatricians reported that although parents struggle to carve out time for family meals, most still placed a high value on making mealtimes with their kids a priority. They just have trouble balancing the demands of the entire family schedule with regular, face-to-face meals together.
Then came the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders. Now, rather than treating kids with pediatric feeding difficulties in their homes, I am helping them try new foods over telehealth. Now, rather than rushing off to the school bus or eating in the car on the way to soccer practice, kids are eating at the family table. The parents I work with are telling me that it has made all the difference.
Kids are eating healthier options. Kids are trying new foods. Kids are becoming more adventurous eaters! Why? Because now, the family has time to implement the #1 strategy to raise healthy, happy eaters: Regular family mealtimes.
Research has shown, way before the pandemic, that family mealtimes expose kids to a variety of foods, expanding their willingness to try new things because more variety appears on their plates. Kids get stuck in the chicken nugget rut when chicken nuggets are readily available from the freezer, on the restaurant kid menus and frequent drive-thrus. Today, we are all making do with what foods are in our pantries and refrigerators and hopefully not rushing off to the store because we are out of our kids’ favorites.
However, I also work with kids with severe pediatric feeding disorders or life-threatening food allergies. These families have struggled to find the foods they need to keep their kids from going hungry. For these children, it takes years of feeding therapy to progress from eating just a few foods to a varied, healthy diet over time. But even during this world crisis, the parents tell me their kids are doing better because they are being exposed to the new foods that the rest of the family is eating at the same table. When we gather together with thankful hearts over a family mealtime, it opens up a world of possibilities.
Bringing kids into the kitchen to prep, cook and serve the meals is now a daily routine for many families, even those with the most hesitant eaters. When it comes time for serving and enjoying what we have cooked together, research from Texas A&M University showed that the types of other foods on the plate will influence the likelihood that a child will taste the new food. Kids are more likely to eat the new vegetable dish when it has been paired with another food that is not a highly preferred food. In short, don’t serve a new veggie dish with chicken nuggets if nuggets are a child’s favorite food. Be sure there is something at dinner that will fill the child’s belly, but offer something that’s not his first choice for dinner.
Younger children reap other benefits from family mealtimes, too. Research has demonstrated that a routine that includes family mealtimes plays a crucial role in language development for children. Both expressive and receptive language skills improve when children are part of the mealtime table with their parents and older siblings, and those mealtime conversations also seem to influence early reading skills, as measured by improvement in reading scores.
Life has changed. Kids, teachers, and parents are doing their best to adjust and thrive, and we’re learning what matters most. My hope is that as we slowly emerge and reenter the life we once viewed as normal, that we also never forget the importance of family mealtimes.
Ariun Ishdorj, Oral Capps, Maureen Storey, and Peter S. Murano, “Investigating the Relationship Between Food Pairings and Plate Waste from Elementary School Lunches,” Food and Nutrition Sciences 6, no. 11 (2015): 1029–44.
Jane Anderson and Den Trumbull, “The Benefits of the Family Table,” American College of Pediatricians, May 2014, acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/the-benefits-of-the-family-table; Marla E. Eisenberg, Rachel E. Olson, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Mary Story, and Linda H. Bearinger, “Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-Being Among Adolescents,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 158, no. 8 (September 2004): 792.
Amber J. Hammons and Barbara H. Fiese, “Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents?” Pedriatics 127, no. 6 (June 2011), pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/6/e1565.
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, “The Importance of Family Dinners VIII,” September 2012, centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/importance-of-family-dinners-2012.
Catherine E. Snow and Diane Beals, “Mealtime Talk That Supports Literacy Development,” New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 111 (spring 2006): 51–66; Andrea Netten, Mienke Droop, and Ludo Verhoeven, “Predictors of Reading Literacy for First and Second Language Learners,” Reading and Writing 24, no. 4 (April 2011): 413–25, europepmc.org/ articles/PMC3058362.