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Children, young people and families, Health and wellbeing

Nine ways to improve family mealtimes

Does dinner feel daunting? Do family mealtimes regularly reach boiling point? Chukwudi Barrah shares nine psychological insights that may just turn down the heat…

11 June 2024

1. Play the long game

Introducing new foods to children can be a marathon, not a sprint. Research indicates that it can take 8 to 15 taste exposures before a child begins to like a new food. Patience and persistence are key, so keep offering those new veggies without pressure. Studies have shown that pressuring a child to finish a food they don't like can be associated with reduced consumption and increased negativity about the food they were in two minds about!

2. Reward with non-food incentives

Are you bribing your child to eat their broccoli by offering sweet stuff as a reward? It may just be back-firing. Researchers have found that using non-food-based rewards like stickers or verbal praise can be the most effective option to encourage children to try and eventually enjoy new vegetables. This combination of rewards, modelling, and repeated exposure can significantly increase their liking of new foods.

3. Embrace sensory-based learning

Children are much more motivated to eat according to taste, not health, yet a study has found that the educational system still relies on telling children what is good for them, rather than allowing them to experience new foods through sensory learning. Sensory play games are fun and rewarding, especially for younger children and psychological studies have shown that these games allow children to explore, and become familiar with, healthy foods without the pressure to try. This experiential approach can be tried at home as well as hopefully being rolled out in more schools, perhaps through growing veg or cooking together, which allows for more hands-on interaction with healthy foods rather than pressure to try.

4. Create a positive mealtime atmosphere

When swords are drawn at the family dinner table, all sorts of unseen processes kick into action. Studies show that stress can make an impact on digestion. And there's nothing like an argument over uneaten broccoli to raise the tension at tea time! There is a wealth of research that has examined dialogue around the dinner table surrounding children's likes and dislikes. Sally Wiggins Young, professor of discursive psychology, concludes that the key to preventing mealtime battles is therefore not to treat comments such as 'I don't like it' as a statement of fact about your child's food preferences. 'Once you stop pulling in the opposite direction and stop trying to argue differently about these knowable dis/likes, you can start having conversations that allow both parents and children to explore food tastes that everyone can enjoy', she says.

5. Don't demonise a single food

We're now surrounded by more food 'rules' than ever, and this can feel overwhelming. Instead, says Dr Laura Wilkinson, understanding the broader context of food production and consumption can foster a deeper appreciation and responsibility towards healthy eating. 'The best diet for you is the one that you can stick to,' says Wilkinson. 'We're living in a food system and a society, that means you will need convenience. Let's stop having diet wars and think about what will help me to up my fruit and vegetable intake.' Discuss where food comes from, how it is produced, and the impact of food choices on the environment and society.

6. Cultivate wellbeing through grow-your-own

Growing your own food is a win-win, and psychologists have done the research to prove it!  Not only can growing vegetables be a fun and educational activity that encourages healthy eating, but it also helps children understand where their food comes from and fosters a greater appreciation for fresh produce. Studies led by researchers at Essex University have demonstrated the benefits of 'Green Exercise' (GE; being physically active within a natural environment or greenspace), on wellbeing and mental health, with reductions in stress and depression, increases in self-esteem. Time to start digging…

7. Understand the factors influencing food choices

If you turn your nose up at sprouts or baulk at the thought of stinky cheese, then it may not just be your taste buds in charge of your decision-making. Studies have shown our food choices are also driven by other cognitions such as sight and thoughts around the item on offer. By understanding there are many factors at play around food preferences, parents can better navigate challenges and encourage healthier eating habits in a supportive manner.

8. Appreciate multisensory perception of flavour

Flavour appreciation is so much more than taste. Did you know that colour and sound as well as a whole host of other factors play a part in how we react to various foods? Talking about the noise a food makes when we eat it and what we think about the colour can help to engage children at the dinner table and even encourage them to try new foods.

9. Reflect on 'feeling' foods

Many of us might reach for the biscuit tin when we feel bored, others extol the virtue of chicken soup when we're feeling under the weather. What we can safely say is that food is a way to feed our feelings. In addition, studies have shown that even cooking certain foods can bring up feelings, before we have even taken a bite – notice your heart rate increase if you are cooking for a 'judgy visitor'.  Understanding the concept of comfort foods and the emotional connections to eating can help in making conscious food choices that contribute to physical and emotional wellbeing.

By incorporating these strategies into your family mealtimes, you can create a more enjoyable and nutritious experience. Explore the full articles in The Psychologist for more insights and tips.