Our parenting duties are comprised of thousands of different little responsibilities, but among the most basic, and the one that shows up 3 or more times a day, day in and day out, is the duty to have our children consume nourishing foods. Because all parents recognize the importance, a child who doesn’t desire to consume healthy foods can stress the whole family.
My children are now 4 and 6, and still are what other people refer to as ‘good eaters’ (see #6). It makes all of life more enjoyable, they have energy to learn and grow and play, their health is vibrant, and I know if they need a temporary healing diet I can put them on with relative ease.
This is what I’ve found success with, both for new eaters, and for preschool and early elementary aged children.
1. Starting at the breast, or with a bottle if necessary, don’t stress over eating. The natural process of breastfeeding does not allow the mother or caregiver to know how many ounces the infant is consuming, and there is no pressure for the babe to finish the last couple tablespoons left at the bottom of the cup, or stop eating just because the 8 ounces packed along for an outing has to last for the entire 4 hours.
In the case of a newborn not getting the hang of breastfeeding a lactation consultant should be consulted, but once mommy and baby have a good nursing relationship, the amount of food consumed should not be pressured to change from the baby’s natural desires.
2. Don’t pressure or rush the start of solid foods. Both my children had no desire to consume any food other than breastmilk until right around 1 year. To take the pressure off of the baby, offer solids when the babe is showing interest, but don’t pressure or withhold breastmilk to encourage the babe to try new things. Breastfeeding ideally is continued until over 2 years, this ensures that all the child’s nutritional needs are met as they learn to try and like wholesome foods and the parents don’t need to worry about ‘getting her to eat anything’ just so she is consuming enough calories to meet her energy needs.
3. Feed the child in courses. I arrange what my children eat in courses from what I feel they need the most to what they nee the least. I introduce solids the same way, starting with egg yolk, steamed veggies, and soups, and then waiting for fruit and other carby starchy foods.
Even at 4 and 6, I still offer a veggie ‘appetizer’ (carrot sticks, cucumber slices, celery), then a protein with a veggie if it’s cooked together, then starch if we’re having something like rice or potatoes, and then fruit as dessert. Snacks are full of protein and fat (see #4) to give slow and steady energy and prevent sugar crashes.
4. Don’t be afraid of fat, salt, or carbs when feeding children. Fat, especially saturated fat, is necessary for the growth, brain development, absorption of vitamins and minerals, and to allow them to feel full for longer so they don’t have to eat as often. Sea salt contains trace minerals and is another necessary nutrient in your child’s diet. When food is adequately salted and contains fat to taste, it is appealing to children and they eat it. Carbs from whole food sources like fruit, potatoes, and soaked grains are also healthy and give digestible lasting energy and nutrients to growing children. Attempting to follow current trends in eating and removing food groups from growing children’s plates makes food unappealing at best, and is depriving them of nutrients that they need to grow and thrive at worst.
5. As the toddler weans, ease right into limiting when food is eaten. The most sure way to have struggles over mealtime is to provide a delicious home cooked meal to a child who is not hungry. When children snack all day long and caregivers use food as a distraction, reward, or to relieve boredom, they are never truly satisfied the way a balanced home cooked meal can make them, and they are never truly hungry enough to consume a full meal.
We limit food to being eaten every few hours. Breakfast within an hour of waking up, lunch 4 hours later, afternoon snack 3 hours after that, and then dinner 3 hours later. If we are expecting a late dinner I add in a morning snack and push lunch, snack, and dinner later.
6. Eating should be a pleasant experience. Point out the flavors that are in season, the contrast of textures and taste, and ask about their day while they eat. Talk about things they are excited about in the future, and what else is happening that day. Sit with them for their meals and get to know them- the attention is as nourishing as the food you are providing.
Sometimes my children are very hungry, sometimes they are less hungry. Sometimes they skip vegetables, sometimes they don’t want anything heavy, but usually they eat their meal as it is served. I don’t take it personally if they don’t want everything I serve, though I will gently encourage them to try it if they are distracted or tired. It’s not a big deal, the next meal will be balanced and will come in a few hours, so anything missed out on now will be made up for then.
7. Eating is not a reward and should be treated as a matter of fact operation. Praise for eating shows the child that eating healthy food is something that is exceptional and not normally expected. I don’t praise my children for breathing, keeping their heart beating, falling asleep at night, or doing daily living activities, and I sure don’t praise them for eating the food they need for energy and growth. Making a big deal about what is eaten or not eaten is a sure way to get into power struggles over food.
Some phrases I use are, “It’s ok if you’re done with your meat, but we aren’t going to have peaches for dessert if you’re too full for the rest of your dinner.” “I bet you are hungry, you didn’t eat much for breakfast, it’s ok- lunch is in an hour and we’ll have ____”, also “I love pesto chicken, how about you? It’s Uncle Grant’s favorite too.”
8. Involve children in food preparation. Keeping children involved in the kitchen gives them a sense of pride and ownership in the meal. The responsibility of unloading groceries and knowing where they go, the knowledge of what makes up their favorite meals, and the trust in them that you have when you allow them to use a sharp paring knife for the first time all builds confidence in their daily lives and around food.
We make baked dessert on the weekends, this gives us something to look forward to, consistency in our routines, and a project to work together on. The rest of the week we normally have fruit for dessert.
9. Fun doesn’t just have to be about food. Being the mom who brings a football or frisbee to the park and starts a game with all the kids there, the dad who knows all the kids’ names on the soccer team and hands out high fives (or fist bumps if kids are too cool to ‘five’) at the end, and the parent who brings in cool projects to do with the class at school more than makes up for any television-commercial food the kids miss out on.
10. A sense of family belonging goes a long way to guard against children feeling deprivation from not eating what their peers do. A sense of belonging around food can start as soon as the kids start to ask questions about your different eating habits. “Our family doesn’t drink soda- we like water though”, “Our family doesn’t snack before lunch, it’s ok, you’ll be hungry to eat a good meal when it’s ready”, and “Our family doesn’t eat food dyes, it’s ok, we can give it to ___ since they do.” I don’t apologize or feel guilty for my children ‘missing out’ on unhealthy food any more than I feel guilty that we don’t have a new bright blue Toyota FJ like our friends have, we go to the lake for vacation instead of Disneyland like our neighbor does, or I bring my kids to school rather than have them ride the bus like some of their classmates.