This is the fourth column in a series about talking to kids about food. My first column used the colors of the rainbow to illustrate how to describe the benefits of certain foods to elementary-aged children. Next, I taught you some phrases to use with your kids, such as “Dinner is soon,” or “I’m not offering that food right now; maybe it will be in the menu tomorrow.” Last month, I offered some helpful hints to navigate food with your kids at all of the summer events you have coming up.
One of the phrases I included in my column two months ago deserves a bit more attention, as it just might be the way to end mealtime frustration.
“You don’t have to eat it.”
This phrase is potentially one of the most powerful things you can say as a parent. It places the responsibility of what and how much to eat squarely on your child, right where it should be. Awhile back, I read something on a pediatric dietitian’s social media page that really stuck with me, and it’s something I use in my own parenting.
In a nutshell, it laid out the roles and responsibilities for both parents and children. Parents are in charge of three things at mealtimes: WHAT foods are being served, WHERE the meal is served, and WHAT time the meal is served. Children are in charge of just one: HOW much they eat. It’s strangely freeing, right?
You can’t make them eat, and it’s not your job. Children need to learn to listen to their bodies and recognize hunger and full signals. Overeating to please a caregiver or receive a treat teaches them to ignore those signals, and that they aren’t in charge of their own bodies.
I understand that this concept can strike fear into any parents’ heart. Perhaps you have a picky eater and can’t imagine not pestering them to try the new food on their plate. Maybe your child is underweight and you’re genuinely afraid they won’t eat enough without you hovering over them and their plate?
Keep in mind that toddlers don’t need as much food as we often think they do. Their meals can often be measured in just tablespoons of food. Two-, three- and four-year-olds aren’t growing nearly as fast as they were when they were before. Also, the simple skill of learning to eat and discovering new foods is fun for little ones—no wonder they shovel the food in! When your already-small-for-their-size child isn’t eating much on their plate, try to remember that their calorie needs have leveled out, and that they are still learning to listen to their hunger cues. (That being said, always consult your pediatrician if you are truly concerned about your child’s weight and/or growth.)
To complicate matters, in that same column, I even encouraged you to serve a bit of dessert WITH a meal. So now you’re supposed to give them a treat, not bat an eye when they gobble it down first, and then not even ask them to eat a bite or two of their main course?
This does not mean serving chicken nuggets and mac and cheese on repeat. Quite the opposite, really. This looks like serving small amounts of everything being served for dinner on their plates, being sensitive to offer at least one food they like at every meal.
For example: you make chicken cacciatore for dinner, which has familiar ingredients but is new overall, and you serve steamed broccoli and orange slices as sides, because you’re pretty sure your kiddo will eat those things. You even add a small piece of a brownie as a treat. Yes, your kiddo will likely eat some of their brownie first, and that’s OK. Don’t ask you kids to take a certain number of bites of the new food—doing that only creates a power struggle between you and your child. How much food your kids eat is one thing they can control, and many children will eat less and/or become picky eaters in order to push back against too much pressure to eat.
I know all of this sounds new and scary and you doubt it’s a strategy that will work. However, I encourage you to give it a try.
Keep offering balanced meals with both new and familiar foods.
Encourage children to try unfamiliar foods, but don’t demand or bargain.
Serve a little treat with the meal and don’t sweat it when it gets eaten first.
Use a variety of words to describe foods, such as ‘crunchy’ or ‘tangy,’ and stay away from the terms ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
Don’t let mealtimes become a power struggle.
Holly R. Layer is a Registered Dietitian and a freelance writer. She lives in the village with her husband Andrew, an East Aurora native, and their daughter, Maelle. She blogs at www.thehealthypineapple.com. Questions can be emailed to Holly at email@example.com.