Do you want to hear a confession? The first 6 months of 2012 my kids didn’t eat balanced diets or full meals. Previously, they had always been great eaters, and I’d just shrug my shoulders and say they loved to eat and they didn’t really know anything other than Nourishing Traditions/GAPS food.
But a series of changes happened in late 2012 that lead to them learning to talk (and being more difficult to redirect because of it), other people watching them more often so they quickly figured out that there was more to life than the way mama did it, a mama who may-or-may-not-have started using food as a bribe more often, and a cookbook that lead us to eat whatever we happened to cook to take pictures of that day, whenever we happened to cook it.
But before this my kids were good eaters. I had a general idea about how I could get them back to being great eaters, but it took reading French Kids Eat Everything gave me a good push back in the right direction.
This Making Room For Healthy Changes post is the start of a series of posts to help you make room in your time, budget, and more importantly cluttered mind, to make the healthy changes that you’ve been meaning to make. Your goals will vary- they can be anything as daunting as doing the GAPS Intro or as simple as using a few more natural remedies and finding a source of local grassfed beef.
Getting Kids To Eat is part of this series because when kids aren’t eating, too much time and energy is spent thinking about it and trying to fix it on a day-to-day basis.
I hear about the struggle to get kids to eat with just about every mother I know. It seems to be something on the mind of most mothers of young children, and here is what I’ve learned works for us, with some more tips learned from French Kids Eat Everything.
Don’t use food as a substitute for parenting
Yes. I have been guilty of this my entire time as a parent, so no judgement here. From the time they were mobile, I would have my ready-to-play babies nurse until a time I deemed reasonable to get up (nothing crazy, this was usually 6 or 7:00). This transitioned into cereal (and once we were on GAPS, blueberries) in the grocery store, cups with juice in the car, and other sweets or nuts whenever I was on the phone or finishing something up for work.
This idea of not using food to substitute for parenting is all well and good, but at the beginning it seems like an uphill battle. The structure outlined below allows me to actually stick to this idea.
I still do what I consider to be bribes (see Don’t Say No below), but they’re not the immediate gratification of getting a favored food while Mom finishes up a phone conversation that so quickly can escalate to struggles about food all.day.long.
Set Times for Meals and Snacks
When we get up sets the rest of the day’s meal and snacking schedule. We usually are up at 6, breakfast is at 6:30, lunch at 11, dinner at 5. If we’re having guests for dinner we’ll do a snack at 3 or so and then dinner at 6 or whenever works for our guests. We’ll also include a mid morning snack if we’re meeting a friend for lunch at 1 or 2.
But if we stick to our meals every 5-6 hours we don’t need snacks. This is a radical idea in America, but the book French Kids Eat Everything explains that our ‘hunger’ is actually a symptom of our body expecting food. So if you’re used to snacking, you might ‘feel hungry’ every hour, but your body can be programmed to expect food less often*.
Balanced meals take the guesswork out of knowing if your child has ‘had enough to eat’. Simply choose a fat, carb (optional, but most families will unless there are special circumstances), vegetable, and protein and you don’t have to worry any more. I’ve gotten in the habit of just presenting them with the options and a small serving of each, and I know that I am providing three balanced nutrient dense meals a day for my children.
For meal suggestions, see my grain free meal plans– I get excited emails from mothers all the time to tell me how much more enjoyable their family meals are now that they can just tell their children to look at the menu- no arguments, and they see when favorite dishes are going to be served next as well.
Serve Meals in Courses
I don’t always do this, but if my kids have made a habit of avoiding a certain food (it’s usually protein for my daughter and vegetables for my son) I’ll simply serve that food first. I don’t stress if they don’t eat their food, but serving meals in courses can be a gentle encouragement to get hungry kids to eat food that isn’t their favorites.
I generally do not have an attitude of ‘eat this, then you can have that’ unless it’s a defiance issue, I prefer to keep mealtime pleasant and avoid negotiations of any kind.
Keep Meal Conversations Pleasant and Corrections Matter-of-Fact
The modern American culture has a somewhat stressful attitude about food, and I’m doing my best to keep stress away and mealtimes pleasant. For us that means encouragement and positive statements. I work to not say anything bad about food, but rather point out the good things in what we are eating (or what I would like them to eat); “Carrots and peas have lots of vitamins that help your body run smoothly” “Chicken has protein to build big strong muscles” “Butter is yummy and helps you feel full and give you nutrients and energy”
I also try to gently nudge improvement in table manners; I’ve seen parenting specialists refer to this as ‘stretch, but don’t push’ – I will stretch what they are capable of to encourage table manners and polite behavior, but I don’t push to the point of exasperation for either them or me.
Don’t Say No
… if you can help it. When my children ask for things (apples, oatmeal, yogurt, cake, cookies) I say yes. Yes, you can have an apple at your afternoon snack; yes, you can have oatmeal** Tuesday morning; yes, you can have yogurt after dinner; yes, we can make cake or cookies this weekend. When said with a smile and enthusiasm it’s easier to accept- “Yes! That’s a great idea, let’s have that kind of cake Sunday when Uncle Grant visits!”
How This Helps Our Family
Even though I enjoy cooking, and I run a food blog, I actually don’t prefer to have food take up an undue amount of time and energy in our lives. I’m really an eat to live, not live to eat type person and don’t particularly consider myself a foodie.
When mealtimes are relaxed, pleasant, and children actually eat their fill at them it allows us to spend the rest of the day doing fun activities without having to fix snacks, clean up food mess, or be chained to the kitchen. Seeing meal prep as an enjoyable family activity also goes a long way to getting the children to eat happily.
Since reading French Kids Eat Everything, I’ve banned food from the car unless we’re on a long road trip, and my car stays crumb free. We can travel to appointments, visit friends’ houses, go swimming or hiking, and get involved in homeschool projects without having to pack along food- this is SO freeing and has made going out with the kids so much more enjoyable.
*A Note on Hypoglycemia
I used to be hypoglycemic, if I didn’t eat when my body expected food (every 2-3 hours, and right as soon as I woke up) I would pass out. It majorly impacted my life; I couldn’t even shower before eating in the morning without passing out. This lessened once I used more fats in my diet, but really didn’t completely go away until I ran through the GAPS intro and forced my body to figure out how to switch over to burning fat for energy. I can easily skip meals now, not that that’s a goal, but it’s nice to be able to live life without having to have food available all the time.
** No, oatmeal is not allowed on GAPS, see how we ended our GAPS journey here.
*** I feed my infants on demand, then at a year they started eating 3 meals a day with me and nursing gradually less. I think they would nurse about 3 times a day and then on demand at night, and then I night weaned my children at 2 and 2-1/2. I stopped demand nursing around 12-14 months as they were eating a substantial amount of solid food.
**** When starting GAPS, especially intro GAPS, you and your children may legitimately be more hungry. My little one ate like crazy for about 6 weeks and then calmed down, this post is more about kids who just pick at their food and don’t ever eat substantial meals, not about those who are legitimately hungry.