When public speaking, regardless of what nutrition topic I am presenting to the group, I inevitably am always asked the same question at the end:
“How do I get my kids to eat healthy foods?”
As a mom, I can say that feeding kids is one of the MOST frustrating things that I have ever encountered in my 37 years of life. Fortunately, as a Dietitian, I have worked in community nutrition settings with young families working through this very question. One of my favorite books about childhood nutrition is titled “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense” by Ellyn Satter MS, RD. Her well-established rules and guidelines for feeding children are helping me with my own kids, and they have been the basis I have used for teaching my own clients to win the food fight with their children.
There are three basic rules for feeding kids that I have followed from the book that take the fight and frustration out of every meal and snack.
Rule #1 – Give kids control within set boundaries. Since kids are not yet aware of what foods are healthy and what foods are not, it is the parent’s job to provide 2-3 healthy choices. From there, let your kids choose WHAT and HOW MUCH of those foods they would like to eat. Knowing that they are choosing healthy foods give us, the parents, more peace of mind. Also, allowing our kids to decide for themselves gives them more autonomy and a greater openness to try new foods as they grow.
Rule #2 – Create a structured eating pattern and stick to it. Kids thrive on routine, so plan meals and snacks to be about the same time each day. Eat at the table and turn off the television. Make sure snacks are not too close to mealtime. Hungry kids eat much better than kids who just had a snack.
If your child does refuse to eat gently remind them that they will not be able to eat again until the next scheduled meal or snack and let it go. Do not, then, give in to a hungry child if they didn’t eat well at the prior meal and snack. Keep enforcing that they can eat at the next scheduled time. I am sorry if that seems harsh to some of you, but it works. They learn quickly that there are scheduled times to eat, and it will ultimately decrease the fighting and frustration at mealtime. (And yes, I applied this rule to my own kids).
Rule #3 – Do not short order cook. You will not find “kid foods” in my pantry. I cook for the whole family, and we eat as a family. A recommendation from the book, however, is to make sure there is something that everyone likes to eat on the table even if it is a simple loaf of bread and margarine. If my kids grumble at what is being served, I simply pass the loaf of bread their way.
The principles behind these rules will not make your family perfect. However, they will help neutralize the fight over food and will give you, the parent, a greater sense of control. Keep in mind the day of the “clean plate ranger” has passed. Forcing kids to clean their plates teaches them to override their internal hunger cues which can lead to excess weight gain as they grow and mature. In addition, forcing kids to eat is stressful for the parent and creates a negative eating environment for the child that could make them even more resistant to try new foods.
Food is something that can bring families together in a positive, healthy way. Setting clear boundaries creates a positive eating environment where children feel free to try, or not try, a food that may be new or unusual to them. As a family, say “down with the clean plate ranger,” and instead, adopt these rules into your home. You will find family mealtimes are less about feuding, and more about building memories.
Reference: Satter MS, RD, Ellyn. Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. Boulder, CO: Bull Publishing Company, March 1, 2000.