According to one of the best ever parenting books, Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, the number one secret to feeding children better is to eat together. Children who have family meals, Satter tells us, do better in all respects: nutritionally, socially, emotionally, academically, and importantly in resistance to overweight, dieting behavior, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and even early sexual activity.
Satter’s book covers everything you need to know about feeding your children, from the essential division of responsibility (you determine when and what they eat, they determine how much and whether they eat), to how to cook and even how to shop. One of her key ideas is that you don’t have to be an experienced cook or a “super mom” to feed your family healthy, home cooked meals. You don’t have to cook everything from scratch, and you really don’t have to be super paranoid about how much fat, sugar or other nutrients your food has. In fact, keeping some long lasting staples in the cupboard like dried onion, canned and packet soup and frozen vegetables can be a lifesaver when it comes to quickly getting a meal on the table after a long day.
Sure, if you want to learn how to make yogurt from scratch, or how to cook cordon bleu meals, then go ahead. But don’t feel you have to make every meal this way. Do include some fat, carbohydrate and protein in every meal, including ‘planned snacks’, which she recommends incorporating into your day as a matter of course. Don’t hide vegetables in the pasta sauce (you can put vegetables in the pasta sauce, just don’t hide them there) – remember your job is to decide what you offer your children, but it is their job to decide whether and how much they eat of each item. Hiding vegetables denies them this responsibility. On the other hand, there’s no problem with dressing vegetables up with a tasty sauce to make them more palatable.
When you follow the division of responsibility faithfully, your children might eat only vegetables for three weeks and then switch to eating no vegetables, and that’s okay. They will learn to eat what their body needs and to follow their hunger cues, only if you give them the autonomy to do so without pushing them to eat more, less, or differently.
The subtitle of Satter’s book is ‘How To Eat, How To Raise Good Eaters, How To Cook’, which translates into the three main sections of the book. But Satter also has an excellent set of appendicces with the details of the research that backs up her recommendations, and for the real routine followers among us she also has three weeks of menu plans, backed up with recipes and even a shopping list. Of course, even following all Satter’s instructions to the letter, every family meal is not going to be a picnic (excuse the pun), either to cook or to sit through. But with practice, and by sticking to the division of responsibility, family meals can become an important part of the glue that keeps your family together. They can even be enjoyable!