By Stacy Whitman
Raise a kid who loves salmon and salad? Isn’t afraid to try new foods? Doesn’t overindulge on junk? Knows when to stop noshing in general? Yes, it is possible—but you have to know how. (Hint: It doesn’t involve insisting that he try “just one bite” or promising dessert if he finishes his broccoli!)
Parents can have a powerful impact on a child’s lifelong eating habits and relationship to food, says Ellyn Satter, RD, a registered dietitian and author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family (2008). But despite our good intentions, many of us unknowingly create problems (from extreme pickiness to weight issues and eating disorders) by interfering with our tots’ eating, or not being positive or providing structure and opportunities to learn.
Sure, we all make mistakes. But when it comes to feeding our kids, they can have serious consequences. According to Satter, up to 30 percent of kids develop such bad eating problems (including consuming too much or too little food, difficulty learning the mechanics of eating and objectionable mealtime behaviors) that their parents seek professional help. And countless numbers go on to experience conflict and anxiety about eating.
To keep this from happening in your family, we asked a panel of experts to point out the top feeding errors—and explain what you should be doing instead. Take their advice and your child should learn how to eat—and love—a variety of foods and stay in tune with his natural hunger cues. And with any luck, those mealtime battles should be over for good.
Mistake #1: Not having regular meals and snacks
While newborns do better when fed on demand, toddlers need more structure, Satter says. That means sitting down for three daily meals plus two or more snacks at set times—no food or drink “handouts” (except water) in between. Kids who are already in the habit of grazing may protest at first; if so, just remind your child when the next meal or snack is and stand your ground. Once she realizes that nonstop noshing isn’t an option, she can stop the constant struggle around food and focus on learning and playing, Satter points out. Plus, she’ll be able to work up an appetite, increasing the chances that she’ll eat her meal and sample new foods.
Mistake #2: Only serving foods she likes
Limiting the menu to foods your child readily accepts almost guarantees she won’t move beyond chicken nuggets anytime soon. So don’t make her special meals! Instead, prepare one meal for the entire family, including one or two items that she ordinarily eats (such as bread and milk) along with not-yet-liked foods, says Satter. Then, put it all on the table and let your child pick and choose. Keep in mind that toddlers are naturally skeptical of the unknown and it may take 15 to 20 (or more!) exposures before she’s willing to take a bite. In the meantime, don’t worry if her dinner consists of bread. Trust that when it comes to eating habits, your child wants to “grow up” just as she does with other behaviors, Satter says.
Mistake #3: Being a food pusher
Ninety percent of parents try to get their children to eat when they say they don’t want to or they’re full, Satter says. This may teach a child to ignore his body’s signals and overindulge. In one study published in the Archives of Adolescent Medicine, the more parents told their children to clean their plates, the more likely the kids (boys in particular) were to request oversized portions of sugary cereal at daycare. The lesson: Don’t insist that your child finish his meal—or eat at all!—no matter how much you think he needs the calories or hate wasting food.
Mistake #4: Pressuring kids to eat certain foods
If you want your child to, say, eat his spinach, the best thing you can do is back off. “The job of the parent is to get the food to the plate, not the food into the kid,” explains Johnson. That means no reminders to eat or taste the food, silly eating games, nutrition lectures or threats to withhold treats. Even incentives such as cheerleading, praising and bribing are counterproductive. “As long as you do your job of providing a variety of healthy foods, your child will do her job of eating and growing,” adds Johnson. “It might not look the way you want it to. She might refuse to eat her carrots and only eat her noodles, for example. But you’re never going to force her into being a carrot lover. Instead, keep serving them and eat them in front of her, and you may be surprised—one day, she may enjoy them!”
Mistake #5: Letting mealtime get unpleasant.
Meals should be enjoyable for the whole family, but they won’t be if you point out your child’s every tiny indiscretion. Do teach her to act nicely at the table by not throwing food or making a big fuss, saying “yes, please” and “no, thank you,” and asking to be excused. But don’t make a big deal about things like eating with her fingers, not using a napkin or being a little messy. Always try to keep the mood upbeat! And if she’s really misbehaving, send her packing, even if she hasn’t eaten a morsel. She’ll quickly learn that family meals are sacred and good manners are a must.
Five more “don’t-do-it!” feeding mistakes:
- Making dessert a reward. Promising a treat for finishing her meal teaches her to eat even when she’s full and is likely to make her overindulge.
- Insisting that she try a bite. Make it a gentle suggestion instead of a stern command so she doesn’t feel forced and you both have an “out” if she digs in her heels.
- Banning your child from the kitchen. Kids are more apt to eat (or at least taste!) a dish that they helped create.
- Using oversized dishes. The bigger the bowl or plate, the more your child is likely to overeat, says food psychologist Brian Wansink, MD. Stick to kid-sized dishes for instant portion control.
- Serving blah veggies. Give them appeal by sprinkling them with Parmesan cheese, pairing them with a yummy dip or giving them fun names like “X-ray vision carrots” or “superhero squash.”
Avoid these common pitfalls and help your child develop healthy attitudes toward eating.