Parents want their kids to eat well. Great intention, challenging mission. Busier-than-ever schedules and unlimited food choices — including highly palatable, kid-appealing options like cotton candy grapes and sprinkled donut crunch cereal — complicate eating. Couple this with a constant supply of conflicting nutrition information, and you have an impossible feat.
What does eating well even mean these days? Organic or local produce? Do I need to worry about GMOs? What if it says organic but not non-GMO? What the heck is a GMO anyway? Gluten? Dyes? Sugar? Hydrogenated oils? The list goes on. And then, once you figure out what to feed kids, how do you actually get them to eat it? It’s no surprise that feeding is a source of stress for many parents these days.
How do parents stay sane and maintain a positive attitude about food amidst all the hype? First, take a deep breath. Now, keep this in mind: How you feed is far more important than what you feed your child.
The primary goals of feeding in childhood are growth and setting the stage for a healthy relationship with food later in life. Kids are born with an innate ability to self-regulate food intake; they have a keen sense of their hunger and fullness cues. Parents can unintentionally interfere with this natural ability by overriding children’s food preferences and pushing food. That said, kids do need guidance from parents.
Here are a few strategies to set the stage for healthy eating.
Set boundaries around food as you would in any other area of a child’s life — media, bedtime, and curfew. Boundaries should reflect your own parenting style and food values and include healthy, flexible (not rigid) limits. Naturally, boundary lines will shift over time as kids mature and take on more responsibility for feeding themselves.
Feeding style greatly impacts a child’s nutrition and relationship to food. Childhood nutrition expert Jill Castle, MS, RD, notes that permissive, neglectful, or authoritarian feeding styles lead to disruptions in a child’s natural growth and weight trends (i.e., children may trend lower or higher weight than expected). An authoritative feeding style strengthens a child’s natural ability to self-regulate food intake, enabling the child to develop a healthy relationship with food and grow as expected. In the authoritative feeding style, the parent directs the feeding process with some input from the child. For example, an authoritative feeder may deny food requests outside of regular meal or snack times but will consider the nature of the request (i.e., hunger vs. boredom or stimulus) and keep the request in mind for the next scheduled feeding. Learn more about feeding styles here.
Kids need structure around food. Set regular meal and snack times. Ideally, kids need to eat every two to three hours — three meals and two or three snacks a day. Shoot to serve three different types of foods at meals (i.e., a protein, a carbohydrate, and a produce) and two at snacks. Avoid grazing as much as possible so kids arrive to meals and snacks hungry and continue to associate hunger with eating (as opposed to boredom, activities, etc.).
Divide the labor
You and your child are partners in the feeding process; each of you has a role, and both roles are important. The gold standard in feeding children is the division of responsibility (DOR) developed by Ellyn Satter, MEd, RD. As the name suggests, the DOR divides the feeding responsibility between parent and child. Parents are responsible for the when, what, and where of food and kids are responsible for how much. When parents step over this dividing line, it backfires. When children feel pressured to eat, they will eat less. When a child’s food intake is limited (i.e., by controlling portions), the child will overeat whenever the opportunity presents.
You may be thinking what about sweets? Many parents struggle with managing sweets. It’s important to regularly expose kids to sweets to help them learn how to self-regulate with all foods. This may look different from one family to the next, but kids need regular opportunities to self-regulate with sweets. Believe it or not, kids will stop at some point if they know they’ll have another opportunity to eat the coveted food again.
On a recent snow day, my daughter and I baked a cake. I let her lick the frosting bowl. After not too long she said, “Ick, mommy, this tastes disgusting!” I replied, “Really?” And she said, “It tasted good before, but not now.” This didn’t surprise me. She’d had lunch not too long before and wasn’t hungry. Our taste perception of sweet foods changes as our body registers fullness and we have enough energy on board. Likewise, if we’re starving and we dip into a bag of Swedish fish, we’re likely to finish off the bag and maybe even move on to some ice cream.
When sweets are offered regularly, kids are less likely to eat them compulsively at social events where these foods are served. While you can try to hold your kids in a sugar-free bubble, they will be exposed to these foods at some point. Check out these great tips for managing sweets and junk food.
One of my favorite quotes from Satter is, “When you give yourself permission to eat, you can give yourself permission to stop.”
Amy Gardner, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and the owner of Metrowest Nutrition, a nutrition counseling and consulting practice with locations in Newton Centre, Framingham, and Westborough. Amy specializes in eating disorders, pediatric feeding concerns, autism and ADHD, sports nutrition, and wellness.
Amy combines a non-diet approach to eating and a Health At Every Size (HAES) approach to weight with mindfulness techniques to help empower individuals to listen to their bodies’ internal cues and become more attuned to their bodies’ unique biological rhythms. She believes eating should be flexible and pleasurable while providing the necessary fuel for life.