"Why won't they eat vegetables? Are they getting enough nutrients? Are they growing at the appropriate rate? Why don't they ever seem interested in eating at meals? Why are they always asking for food? Should I give them food every time they ask for it? Will I ever be able to make just one meal that everyone will eat? Is it okay to let them have dessert?"
If you've ever been involved in feeding kids, maybe some of these questions sound familiar. Meal time shouldn't feel like a battle ground! We are born knowing when and how much to eat but, as we grow older, rules and restrictions that are set around food often cause us to lose our innate ability to eat intuitively. As a parent, you can help your kids maintain or redevelop a healthy relationship with food while also decreasing stress at meal times by respecting each person's responsibility when it comes to food, providing some structure, and trusting that your child has the ability to self-regulate their food intake.
Here are some ways you can do this:
Know what each person's job is
Ellyn Satter is a registered dietitian and family therapist who developed the division of responsibility in feeding, which is the gold standard for feeding children. Basically, the job of the parents is to decide the what, when, and where of feeding. The children then get to decide how much and whether they will eat. Parents choose the menu, ideally including at least one food that they know their child likes. Parents also set consistent meal and snack times (more on that in the next tip). Kids then get to decide (without pressure), whether or not they want to eat what is provided and how much of it they want to eat. Only they can tell when their body is telling them they're hungry or full and pressuring them to eat more or less is not helpful and just causes confusion (again, more on that below).
Provide regular sit-down meals and snacks
Regular meals and snacks serve several purposes. Family meals allow children to see normal eating and mealtime behaviors modeled for them. Also, knowing that another meal or snack is coming in a few hours also helps prevent overeating or hoarding food out of uncertainty over when the next eating occasion will be. If food and drinks (except water) are only provided at the set meal and snack times, children are also able to build up an appetite and will be more likely to eat a decent, balanced meal when the time comes than if they were grazing on chips and drinking juice all afternoon.
Trust your child to eat
Children are born with the ability to eat the appropriate amounts based on their hunger and fullness. Some days they will eat a lot and some days they won't eat much at all. This is normal! Don't encourage your child to clean their plate, pressure them to eat less, or force them to eat certain types of foods. These efforts only backfire and teach them to ignore their internal cues. If you provide balanced, sit-down meals and snacks, they will eat the amount they need to grow in a a way that is right for them. As long as they are following a consistent curve on their growth chart (not skipping over multiple percentiles up or down), they are growing appropriately for them.
Don't use food bribes
It is tempting to want to encourage your child to eat more vegetables by offering to reward them with dessert or another food they prefer. This is not helpful. It only serves to enforce the idea that vegetables aren't as appealing and that other foods are better or that vegetables are something that must be suffered through to get to the good stuff. Trying new foods can be a long process. Continue having vegetables or other new foods available at meals and they will eventually show more interest in trying them, particularly if they see you eating them.
Set an example
Kids will want to eat what you eat. Even if they don't seem too interested in a food at the moment, they'll be more interested in trying it down the road if they consistently see you eating it.
Include "fun foods"
Banning less nutritious foods, such as candy, chips, and desserts may seem like a good idea but it will only backfire. Just as it does for adults, making these foods off limits only makes them more desirable. The result is that your child will overeat these foods any chance they get (whether at a friend's house or sneaking some when you're not looking). If these foods are available and incorporated into their normal eating, they will be eaten in reasonable amounts and won't hold so much interest. They'll be just another food.
Avoid restrained feeding
Setting portion sizes, limiting fat, pushing low calorie foods, rigidly controlling "fun foods", encouraging children to eat low calorie foods before eating their higher calorie foods, and making comments or giving "the look" in regards to food choices will all hinder a child's ability to trust their internal cues and eat in the way that is appropriate for them and will ultimately lead to feeding issues.
Normal growth is based on consistency over time for each child and is not based on staying at or below/above a certain percentile. Normal growth also includes gradual shifts across percentiles over time. Abrupt, rapid shifts across percentiles are likely abnormal but even those don't warrant restrained or pushy feeding tactics. If an abrupt shift occurs, establishing structure and maintaining the division of responsibility will allow the child's growth to normalize. Working with a professional knowledgeable in child feeding might be helpful in this process.
When many adults have lost trust in their own ability to eat, it can seem daunting to feed a child or trust that child to know how much they need to eat. However, with a little routine and some patience, meal time can actually be an enjoyable experience!