By: Sarah Remmer, Registered Dietician
Feeding kids can be one of the most challenging parts of parenting. Especially for those who are parents of picky eaters — I know this from first-hand experience! And because eating and feeding are a huge part of life, and happen multiple times a day, it can be a huge source of anxiety and frustration for parents, especially at mealtimes. What I commonly see in my nutrition counselling practice is parents who are at their wits end with mealtime battles and fussy eaters, but who are legitimately concerned about their child’s nutrition and worried that they’re not doing a great job of feeding.
I often notice that healthy feeding roles have not been established, and that kids are controlling things that they shouldn’t and vice versa. This can foster destructive feeding and eating patterns and habits, which unfortunately create bigger food issues down the road.
The thing is, as parents we all want our kids to grow to eat a variety of nutritious foods, and have life-long healthy relationships with food.
Here are three of my top feeding tips that will help to take the pressure off of everyone at the table, and help you raise mindful and happy eaters for life:
Parents often dread mealtimes because they foresee a struggle from beginning to bitter end. From the moment you decide what you’re going to make, to when you clear your child’s full plate of uneaten food, you feel stressed and frustrated. You gear yourself up for the battle that you know is coming (and that you often lose), and hope that your child eats something healthy—even a few bites. Common phrases you might use include:
“It’s dinner time—come to the table and eat!”
“Please try your peas—they are good for you!”
“You can’t have dessert unless you have at least 5 bites of your meal” or
“No you cannot have more bread—you’ve hardly touched your vegetables or meat!”
Although we as parents have the best intentions, we often enable picky eating and perpetuate the problem by putting all of the focus on food.
Mealtimes don’t have to bring on anxiety and dread if you can master the art of… backing off. It’s imperative that you take the pressure off (both yourself and your child) to make mealtimes more peaceful. This can be really (ahem… excruciatingly) hard, especially if you feel that your child isn’t eating well daily. Although not an instantaneous picky eating fix, over time, taking the focus off of the food (and what your child is or isn’t eating) and focusing more on family time (talking about everyone’s day, asking about what happened at school or camp, talking about your upcoming family trip etc.) makes your child feel at ease and will increase the likelihood of her trying things on her own. That being said, it’s okay to mention food now and again during meals. Healthy chitchat about food might be “mmm, I love this asparagus- we haven’t had it in a while and I forgot how much I like it”, or “I see that you tried your chicken—how did you like it?” instead of “I’m not going to ask you again—you need to have a bite of your chicken!”
Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually NOT your job to get your kid to eat. It IS your job to provide nutritious meals and snacks everyday, at times and in places that you choose. But when it comes to if and how much your kid eats? That’s 100% up to them. It’s important to establish these feeding roles early—to take the pressure off of everyone.
Kids are naturally intuitive eaters – they will finish eating when they’re full and (most of the time) they eat when hungry. When given a set meal and snack structure where food is offered in a pressure-free way, kids will either eat the food provided or not. And that’s completely okay. Remind them that this is their opportunity to eat and that when the meal or snack is over, the kitchen will be closed until the next eating opportunity.
Not only do I see parents trying to control something they shouldn’t (whether their kids eat or not), but, in conjunction with this, I often discover that their children are in charge of things they shouldn’t be, namely, the what’s, when’s and where’s of eating.
Here are some common examples:
Sometimes when we feel defeated and worried (and even desperate), we turn to these strategies in hopes that our kids will eat (eat anything!), but unfortunately, it further perpetuates picky eating tendencies, mealtimes battles and unhealthy eating habits down the road.
By establishing some appropriate mealtime boundaries with your kids (and enforcing them consistently), you can regain control over mealtimes (the what’s, where’s and when’s of feeding) and allow your kids to take care of the rest (whether and how much they eat). This is the cornerstone of childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. Parents are in charge of what is served, where it is served and when it is served. Kids are in charge of whether and how much they eat. Establishing these boundaries early on (in infancy and early toddlerhood) makes things a lot easier as they get older, but these boundaries can be set at any time (the older they are, the more patient you’ll have to be).
Some mealtime boundaries that I have established in my house and suggest to clients as well are:
But one of the most impactful boundaries in our house is the “kitchen is closed” boundary:
After a meal or snack, I make sure that my kids know that the kitchen is closed. That means no snacks right after dinner, no grazing on the food that’s leftover on their plate from dinner, and no glasses of milk because they didn’t eat enough. If I have a hunch that my kids haven’t eaten enough, I remind them that it’s a good idea to make sure their tummies are satisfied because the kitchen will be closed after mealtime. Requests or demands for snacks outside of these times are gently turned down, with a reminder that they had a chance to eat at the last meal or snack, and they chose not to, but there will be another opportunity in a few hours (or the next morning). At first, if it’s been a bit of a food free-for-all in your house, there will likely be whining and crying but over time, your kids will learn how to regulate their appetite healthfully .