“They just won’t eat healthy, I’m not sure what to do?” This is a statement I hear almost daily in my private practice. With our health obsessed world many parents are struggling to feed their children, and seriously it’s no surprise. Even, or should I say especially as a dietitian, I sometimes have to dismiss the external chatter about health so I can too can allow myself to raise a competent eater. Luckily, this is what I do for a living!
Let’s start first by looking at your relationship with food: How is your relationship with food? How do you feel about your body? Were you fed well as a child? Why would this matter? The most well meaning parents may struggle with their own eating which could be getting in the way of allowing their children to do a good job with eating. Sometimes you have to break the cycle in order to raise a child who eats well. As a parent we mean well, we want better for our children, but trying too hard may not work. It leads a child down the path of poor body image, closet eating, sneaking of food and the feeling of failure. So how to we prevent this?
1. Stop talking to them about nutrition. Children really don’t understand nutrition. Yes, they can regurgitate what they have heard or what you have said, but they really do not have a true understanding. I mean in reality most adults don’t understand nutrition. Think about this, you say to your young child, don’t touch it’s hot. What do they do, touch it and say, “Ouch it’s hot.” They have to work through the whole process and do it for themselves to truly understand. This leads me to my next point…
2. YOU decide WHAT to serve. It’s one of your jobs as a parent, deciding what to serve. Since children don’t have a keen sense of what nutrition means you can’t leave it up to them to decide what they want to eat. At meal time, serve a good variety so they have plenty of opportunity to fill up and get a variety of nutrients. Serve a protein, starch, fat, fruit and/or veggie and milk.
3. Space meals and snacks. Depending on the age of your children, I usually recommend at least 2 hours between meal/snack time, but not longer than 4 hours. Children need to come to the table hungry, but not so hungry they can’t do well. Having structure with meal and snack times can eliminate food battles and grazing on food.
4. Serve all food at the table. Eating is done best when it is a structured activity. By requiring snack and meal time to be served at a table it fosters good eating habits. Say no to food handouts! Children will initially give you kick back on this one, but if they are hungry enough they will get to the table. In the end, children really love this family time.
5. Allow them to decide what to eat from what is served. I’m not saying to cater or open the cabinets and let them go at it. After all it is your job is to decide what is served, but it’s about letting them manage for themselves at the dinner table. No more coaxing, bribing or even requiring just one bite or a no thank you bite. When children are given the autonomy to choose what to eat from what is served it makes meal time pleasant and enjoyable. When eating is enjoyable they will do better nutritionally.
6. Allow them decide how much to eat. Some children eat a lot, some children eat a little. Caloric intake can vary by hundreds of calories everyday and since we don’t live in their body it’s impossible for us to decide when they are full. Making them eat more just to finish their plate can teach overeating. Making them eat less can make can make them feel insecurity with food and more likely to sneak food.
7. Serve “forbidden foods.” Wait, I’m talking about eating healthy and telling you to serve these foods. Absolutely! Children need to learn to grow up with these yummy treats. When they regularly have forbidden foods served at meal and snacks times they eat them and move on. No preoccupation or obsession with them, it’s just matter of fact, they eat them and enjoy them. When these same foods become forbidden, they think about them constantly and when they do have the opportunity to eat them they will overeat them because they don’t know when they will come around again. My biggest advice for parents, serve them at meal times as a part of a balanced meal like I described above, see what happens after a week. They will lose their luster. Recently, I had a family come see me, there son was obsessed with Doritos. My advice: Serve them everyday with dinner for the next 7 days. Guess what happened by the next appointment, you guessed it, he didn’t ask for them again. When he knew they would come around again and again they became less important to him.
So what does this all have to do with getting your child to eat healthy? Teaching your children to eat healthy begins at home by teaching them HOW to eat rather than WHAT to eat. Allow them to have a pleasant eating environment where they can watch and learn from you. You are the single best example for your children. Practice what your preach and allow them to grow up with a healthy relationship with food!