Children require guidance in all areas of their lives— how to tie their shoes, when to speak in a quiet voice, and, of course, when, what and how to eat. As a parent, I know it is my job to think carefully about the messages I send to my child regarding food to start her on the path towards healthy self-regulation. But even as a dietitian who counsels others on developing a balanced relationship with food, I struggle to navigate this with my toddler.
My daughter loves food. Meal times are not stressful, and in fact are usually very enjoyable. She usually finishes everything I give her (and that she often picks out) without an issue. If she doesn’t finish a meal, I just assume she wasn’t that hungry to start. But, it is a different story when we are around others. She often asks for food just because she sees friends or family eating it and, unlike most kids who do this but lose interest in the food once they get it, she will usually finish whatever she is given. Sometimes this results in her not feeling well. This is where it gets tricky. Do I give her food every time she asks, so as not to “restrict her,” or do I try to limit excess snacks and food outside of meal times to help her learn to identify her hunger and fullness cues?
Some parents may think I am too strict with my daughter. The parent of a picky eater, for example, is likely to have different struggles than me – and to arrive at different solutions. Parenting is hard enough without us judging one another. Instead, perhaps we can learn from one another. Because although young, our children are certainly capable of starting to learn about their body and to establish healthy habits, and we must lead the way.
As both a professional in the field of eating disorders and the parent of a young child, I too am learning the best way to provide my child with healthy food messages. These are not necessarily the exact same messages engrained in my head from my professional or personal experiences; instead, they are messages that I think will be helpful for my daughter given her own biology, preferences and budding relationship with food. Here is what I’ve learned so far:
Even if your child won’t sit down to a plate of broccoli or baked chicken, start introducing all types of foods, in a plain and simple form, at an early age. Don’t be discouraged; some kids will like it right away, while others will take a while to adjust to a new taste. Focus on praising the “trying” of new foods, rather than the liking or disliking of them. Try not to jump right into dipping foods or combining a lot of items or flavors. While it will be a good idea at some point, this can initially make it difficult to discern your child’s reaction to a particular food, and once you start, it’s hard to do it differently.
Spinach is just spinach, cookies are just cookies- and food is just food. Making eating a food a reward or not eating it a punishment makes everything more complicated. Dessert can happen just because it’s fun to have cookies once and awhile, not solely because you “ate all your veggies.” Labeling food as “good” or “bad” can be just as problematic for children as it is for adults!
Get your kids involved.
Give your children some say in their food choices. As the parent, we choose most things for them. We pick what time the meal is and what is being served. Let them serve themselves and decide how much goes on their plate. Also, get them involved in the preparing or cooking of their food when possible (even if it makes the process messier or longer). Kids love having input and although we parents must offer guidance when needed, this is one way we can start to help our children learn to self-regulate.
Relinquish some control.
Research has shown that children will eat enough to sustain themselves and that mostly they tend to overdo it primarily on foods that are otherwise restricted. This is a tricky concept to navigate; even as an experienced dietitian, I find myself constantly working to achieve balance for my child.
For example, when a holiday like Halloween comes around, an occasion when most people tend to eat too much candy, what’s the best way to handle it? One option is to pick out a few of their favorite pieces for immediate enjoyment and then discuss a plan together for the remainder of it – perhaps saving it for another time or coming up with a recipe to bake something later on with the leftover.
Like adults, there will be times that kids will overdo it on foods they love. It is important not to get too caught up on those moments; remember, they are moments and not what your child is doing most of the time.
There isn’t a magical, secret way to get your kids to have a healthy relationship with food. Adopting these principles, modeling healthy behavior, and proceeding mindfully when you set up guidelines or talk to them about food can go a long way. In the end, thoughtfully navigating the common challenges of getting kids to eat well early in their lives will leave you more time to focus on the other fun things you can do with your child; things that do not involve food.