Feeding kids is hard. Whether you are struggling with a child who eats too much, too little, or live in that nail-biting-limbo of ‘will she or won’t she?’ every time a new food is served, the stress associated with mealtime can feel overwhelming.
So it’s easy to understand why so many parents resort to bargaining, bribing and short-order-cooking to encourage our kids to eat.
The good news: there is a better way. Child nutrition experts point to several key principles that can help families struggling with common feeding challenges. These helpful practices can help parents move beyond a solitary focus on what children should eat to a broader understanding of how to teach children the habits they need for a lifetime of healthy, happy eating.
Hopefully this post will help bring these principles to life and help get you on the path to conflict-free mealtimes with kids who are willing to try new foods, eat when they are hungry, and stop when they are full.
First: Keep it simple
While a nutrient-based approach may seem logical, being too prescriptive about meeting ‘X’ daily servings of calcium or carefully logging grams of protein eaten at each meal, can – in the end – set parents up to make poor food decisions.
A singular focus on nutrients, for example, may lead you to overlook less favorable food attributes in favor of ingredients you view as positive. As a result, parents may opt for high-sugar yogurt as a delivery vehicle for calcium or saturated fat-laden chicken nuggets as a go-to protein source.
Selecting foods that cater to a child’s intrinsic desire for sugar, sodium and fat does little to teach about healthy eating and only re-emphasizes the notion that ‘kid food’ is necessarily rich, sweet and salty.
This goes for the drinks they consume as well - sugar sweetened beverages can be a major source of added sugars. An easy way to reduce a child’s consumption of those sugary beverages is to help them choose water.
Rather than focus on specific daily nutrients attained, parents would be better served by a long-lens approach that emphasizes, instead, the most basic of nutrition habits. Boston-based sociologist and feeding expert Dina Rose, PhD, breaks these down as follows in her groundbreaking book, It’s Not About the Broccoli:
- Proportion. Teach children to eat foods in proportion to their healthful benefits; think about long-term habits versus short term nutrient goals
- Variety. Offer different kinds of foods, different foods on different days, different flavor profiles (want to avoid rigidity when it comes to food)
- Moderation. Encourage the habit of eating the right amount of foods; eating when hungry, stopping when full
When parents and caregivers step back and ask if and how their feeding practices are teaching the three habits above, the dinner table turns from a must-win battle zone to a long-term training ground for establishing healthy habits.