COVID-19 is creating chaos everywhere. Here’s how to keep the calm at home when it comes to eating meal after meal after meal with your kids ...
,Thanks to COVID-19 my family has been practicing a sort of ramped-up version of social-distancing, which means we’ve been avoiding contact with anyone outside of our family by staying home 24/7, save for a few hours spent outdoors each day riding our bikes and hiking trails in the nearby woods.
On about day three, I started thinking, “Wow. This virus crisis is really making my kids hungry.” It felt as if they were asking me for food every hour on the hour. Then it hit me!
Turns out, I’d been so distracted by the current chaos in my home (ie setting up a home office, learning technology skills I’ve been avoiding for years, researching how the holy heck all those home-schooling parents do it) that I’d forgotten to practice what I preach to parents:
Feed kids meals and snacks on a schedule—and stick to it!
The truth is, the first three days I completely forgot about the mid-morning snack they usually have a school and pre-K and, thanks to a scattered schedule, lunch has been drifting anywhere from 12 to 2pm. Yikes. (Okay, a scattered schedule AND the fact that I don’t own a compass and am embarrassingly bad at following trail markers therefore hikes are anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours--we'll find out when it's over.) Anyway...
Having a solid structure to meals and snacks improves the chances kids (and adults!) will:
1. Be able self-regulate their food intake (ie eat enough to feel satisfied, no more or less)
2. Be less picky
3. Have better moods (ie less tantrums, back-talk, side eye)
4. Let their caregivers stay sane (This one’s not scientifically proven but I can vouch for it anecdotally!)
I can sense questions coming, so here’s my best answers to ones I hear most frequently from the families I work with:
What’s a good schedule to stick to?
For most toddlers, school age kids, and adolescents, that means three meals and two snacks daily spaced between 3 and 4 hours apart. Teenagers may require fewer snacks depending on how active they are and how much they like to burn the midnight oil. (In other words, teens who are inactive may need three meals and no snacks while teens who participate in vigorous physical activity for an hour or more a day may need three meals and a snack before or after activity. Also, teens who stay up for more than 3 or 4 hours past the last meal of the day may require three meals and one nighttime snack. In other words, teens are a bit more complicated.)
How can I figure out the timing?
Younger children have smaller stomachs and therefore may need less spacing between meals (closer to three hours) while school age and adolescents can generally go longer without eating (closer to a four hour span). That said, if you have a mix of ages at home use your stellar instincts and compromise on a time that works best for everyone including yourself. (Caution: This may take a bit of trial and error so cut yourself some slack. We are all figuring this new ‘staying home’ thing out.)
How does sticking to a schedule decrease pickiness?
When adequate time passes between opportunities to eat, appetite builds up. High appetite = kids more likely to accept what you offer. Low or diminished appetite = increased pickiness and food refusal. Just think about it: When your own hunger is low or non-existent, it’s easier to pass on fruit, veggies, and some lean proteins. When you’re truly hungry, a wider variety of foods sound appealing. In other words, if kids are hungry than their less-than-favorites will likely do.
Wait! My kid is underweight. Is it okay to say ‘no’ if they ask for food between meals?
Yes! If your child is maintaining their growth curve for weight and BMI then it is okay to deny them between-meal requests for food. How can I be so sure? If they are maintaining their curve then they are growing predictably, which is an amazing miracle and cannot be done without enough calories. Many of the parents I work with have a tough time with this one, especially if the outside world is constantly commenting on ‘how skinny’ their child is. Rest assured, and it’s worth repeating, if your child is maintaining their growth curve then they are likely getting enough calories to eat. (Specific nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals is another concern–-but if they are growing then their calorie intake is good!)
If your child has had trouble maintaining their growth curve for weight or BMI, I also recommend sticking to a set meal and snack schedule with one proviso: a third snack is warranted no matter what age. For kids who require three meals and three snacks, adding in a before bed snack usually works best. Particularly so if only one child in a family is having trouble maintaining their curve as it can be given more discreetly so long as bedtimes are staggered.
Tips to Keep a Kitchen Schedule
Just like any self-respecting school or daycare teacher, go public with your meal schedule. Once you create, let everyone know what’s up and then post that baby in the kitchen where everyone can see it.
Go for gold and let everyone one know what’s on the menu for each meal. This is definitely not my forte but the virus crisis has got me digging deep and I'm busting out some new found meal planning skills. BTW Jessica Levinson, RD is a genius at this! Bonus points if you can give yourself a break about repetition. This never-before-situation calls for letting go of perfection. Letting go of LOTS of things, the first of which I’d hope will be perfection!
Have a Firm ‘Kitchen is Closed’ Policy!
To send a clear message to kids (and other adults at home because, let’s face it, none of us benefit from grazing all day) that eating will only occur at set times, be clear that sometimes the kitchen is either ‘open’ or ‘closed.’ That means no random reaching for foods whenever the mood strikes. Literally buying a sign from Amazon and hanging it in your kitchen can reinforce the rule and show everyone you mean business!
The Stay Sane Bonus Prize!
If you’re not ‘on call’ for constant food requests there’s a lot less food prep and mess to clean-up. You can read more about the benefits of food boundaries on registered dietitian Jill Castle’s website. If you can teach your kids not to traipse in and out of the kitchen reaching for food whenever the mood strikes, you'll be doing them a favor now and post the stay-at-home crisis!
Stay healthy… calm... and grateful for the fact that you've got time to read this, which means you're current overwhelm probably isn't as bad as it could be. Heck, you're a hero in my eyes since, despite the craze, you're still boning up on parenting tips. Win!