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A Child's Dinner

Dinner is often the main meal of the day in Western countries. Increasingly, between extra-curricular activities for children, shift work and long hours, it has gone from a sit down family time, to a hurried event squeezed into the routine around other commitments. Turning dinner time into a routine, family event can assist in ensuring children eat their meal and enjoy it. Sitting in front of the TV with dinner promotes poor posture and if you are not concentrating on what you are eating, can often result in over-eating. It also means that the chance to wind down and enjoy time talking and socialising is lost.

Dinner is the perfect meal to introduce new foods to children, and to serve up buffet style meals and give children some control over their food choices. It can be a good time to talk about what you are eating and all the nutrients in the meal and how they are good for the children. One thing of key importance that is often overlooked with dinner is portion size. The old habit of serving up a large portion and expecting the child to clean their plate in order to be rewarding with a bowl of ice-cream presents a variety of problems, including over-eating, frustration with food, lack of enjoyment of meals and the development of poor eating habits and psychological problems with food, and the use of desserts as the yummy treat and the meat and vegetables as an obstacle to overcome in order to get the sweet treat.

Some ideas for children’s dinners include:

· Buffets. This sounds like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to serve several different dishes, instead just keep items separate and give the child some freedom in the composition of the meal. Offer a meat, a couple of sauces, a couple of different vegetables and perhaps a carbohydrate like rice or pasta. This also helps children learn about portion sizes.

· Have children taste new dishes you prepare. If they dislike it, don’t force them to eat it, but do continue to offer new and varied items regularly to increase the variety in the diet.

· Try to prepare disliked foods in different ways. Some children will have texture preferences; some will be put off by the way a dish appears or smells. Try baking, stir-frying, serving some items raw, combining different ingredients and so on.

· As with all meals, if you can incorporate children in the preparation you will generally have more success with them eating the final product. You can dice vegetables and some cooked meat the night before and bring them out of the fridge for children to pick from to create their own pizzas. Keep control of the cheese and let them have fun with the vegetables and sauces and possibly herbs. Try pita bread, flat bread or even wholegrain bread as pizza bases, or make your own.

· Presentation. Try serving unfamiliar or less preferred items in a familiar way. A child may not eat spinach on its own, but a little mixed with low fat ricotta, grated leek or onion, pine nuts and sprinkled with some low fat grated cheese and served in a filo pastry shell to resemble a little pie may convince them to try it. Lots of vegetable filled pita pockets for children to pick from and eat with their fingers can be a good way to introduce new vegetables. Adding items to rice or pasta dishes or served with some other dish like noodles that the child likes can be a good way to introduce new foods also.

· Make dinner fun. If parents look and act bored, stressed or rush through the meal children will learn to associate dinner with boredom and stress and will race through it so they can do something else. Avoid complaining about the food served and eat with (exaggerated) enthusiasm, especially with small children. Take advantage of the fact that toddlers love to mimic parents and want to like what their mum or dad do. First impressions are important with children, if they try something once and dislike it, you can have a tremendous amount of difficulty getting them to try again. Likewise, if they overhear a parent or carer discussing how they hate vegetables, they will often pick up on it and decide they don’t either, and simply refuse to even taste even the most enjoyed items, like sweet corn, or potato mash.

· Consider whether dinner needs to be the main meal of the day. After all, young children often head off to bed an hour or two after the meal. Enjoying heavier, bulkier foods for breakfast and lunch can be a good option for families. Children sleep better when not overfull, or upset over a frustrating dinner meal. A lighter meal will require less cooking and preparation time and you may be able to incorporate some preferred foods more readily, making the meal much more enjoyable.

Article by Staff of ACS Distance Education

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