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The Best Diet for Your Child's Mental Health

Five secrets to preventing over– or under-eating in children.

Key points

  • Eat a variety of foods, and try new dishes.
  • Allow your child to pick ingredients for your meal.
  • Make all meals family meals.

This is not a post about calories or nutrition. This is about creating an ultimate meal environment to teach your child to love food, to eat foods appropriate for growing bodies, and to enjoy meal times with family.

Secret #1: Make all meals family meals

Meals should be social affairs. Don’t allow your child to eat alone, especially not alone in their room. Eating alone promotes obesity or even worse, an eating disorder. Eat together with your child. Even if you are not hungry, sit down and have a snack, and share conversation. A meal time is an opportunity to talk about your child’s day, your child’s feelings, and teach about spending time together. It’s also an opportunity to teach about the importance of exploring food tastes, food choices, and meal traditions.

I often tell families to pretend all their meals are like Thanksgiving. Instead of serving everybody an individual plate, try to set three to five main dishes in the middle of a table and give everybody an empty plate. Ask everyone to sit around the table and pass the main dishes with everybody serving themselves a little bit of each dish. Even if your child does not like the food, have them spoon just a little on their plate.

As your child grows, they will spend less time eating with you and more time eating with peers. That’s just fine. As long as meal times are still social, enjoyable, and based on fun and sharing.

Secret #2: Eat a variety of foods

I am often asked, “What should I feed my child?” The Mediterranean Diet has the best evidence to date for its contribution to mental health, but my advice to parents is to serve a great variety of foods. My general rule: “No two of the same meals in a row.” For example, if you serve pasta for Monday dinner, then serve chicken and rice on Tuesday. In general, cook whatever is easy for you to prepare. Cook what you grew up eating in your culture. But experiment with different foods and recipes. Make it fun. Make it different every time, as much as possible. Go to new restaurants and try new takeout places at least once a month.

Secret #3: Make meal times safe

Mealtimes should feel safe for your child. Do not criticize your child"s food choices, manners, distractibility, or messiness. Do not use mealtimes to lecture your child about chores, grades, or attitude. Do not make any comments about calories, weight, or body shape. If your child is underweight, you can discuss calories and weight between meals. Use this time to ask your child about their day, share about yours, discuss flavors of food, and make positive statements about your child.

Secret #4: Cook together

Take your child to the grocery store or to the farmer’s market with you. Allow your child to pick ingredients for your meal, even if these are not the ingredients you would typically select. Let your child touch items in the produce section or deli, smell them, and comment on their colors. When you bring the ingredients home, allow your child to participate in washing, prepping, and mixing them together into recipes. Explain every part of the cooking process. Cooking is mindful and a form of art. It also allows your child to learn about your family and your culture.

Secret #5: Make meals a priority

Too many families do not have breakfast, work or study through lunch, and skip or postpone dinners. Too many families rely on fast food meals hastily eaten in the car on the way to or from late-night activities. If you do not make meals an important part of your life, your child will not make mealtime a priority either. Meals should not be eaten in a hurry, on the run, in front of the TV, or in a car. Meals should be relaxing, calming, and joyful. Meals should be an opportunity to connect, talk, and relax.

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