Feeding children is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. Not only does feeding your family take a lot of time, energy and money, it’s also rife with hard decisions. How do I introduce solid foods to my baby? Should I let my kid eat all that Halloween candy? What do I do when my high schooler is making terrible food choices?
Luckily, there is ample evidence around how to feed your children so they grow to be healthy, competent eaters. And if your feeding relationship with your child has gotten off track, fear not – it is possible to get back to a place where mealtimes are pleasant and children are making good food choices.
There are three fundamentals to think about when feeding children: WHAT to feed, HOW to feed, and WHY they eat the way they do.
The WHAT of feeding is all about food and nutrition. While what to feed has changed through the years, there are some basic considerations that have stood the test of time. Offer nourishing foods the most often, at each and every meal. Nourishing foods include whole fruits and vegetables, meat and non-meat protein, healthy fats, and whole grains. The next category could be referred to as “half and half” foods. These foods include things like refined grains, high fat meat, or other more processed foods. These foods can be offered occasionally, but less frequently than nourishing foods. The last category is “fun foods”, such as cookies, cake, ice cream, chips, fries, etc. It’s important for children to be exposed to these foods in a non-shameful way so that in the future, when they see these foods at a friend’s house or party, they know they can eat them – or not – in a way that is reasonable and healthy.
Remember, as the parent you are in charge of what food you bring into the home. So when shopping fill your cart mostly with nursing foods, some half-and-half foods, and occasional fun foods.
The HOW of feeding your child is probably more important than the WHAT. As parents, our ultimate goal is to raise children who are competent eaters. A competent eater makes healthy food choices often, knows when they are hungry and full, and is able to be around “fun foods” without overindulging in them. HOW you feed your children will determine if they become competent eaters in the future.
Parents have two secret weapons in this category: structure and a diplomatic feeding style. It is very important to develop structure around feeding. Children who are constantly allowed to graze on food, or on the flip side children who have no idea when they will get to eat again, will not develop into competent eaters. Consider adding more structure to your feeding schedule so that children have predictable meal and snack times and are not allowed to graze all day on snack foods. The next secret weapon – the diplomatic feeding style – is probably the most important skill for parents to master. A diplomatic feeding style is characterized by responsiveness to the child, structure and boundaries around mealtime, and respect for the child’s food choices. Parents ensure that mostly nourishing foods are served on time, they respond to the child’s hunger and fullness, allow reasonable choices around foods without overly catering to the child’s food preferences, and they let the child regulate their own eating. In other words, “parents provide, children decide”.
The last fundamental is WHY our children behave the way they do around food. This varies greatly by the child’s age, development, and personality. For example, infants are generally very willing to try new tastes and textures and parents should take advantage of this “honeymoon” stage. From age 2-6 we expect children to become more picky – this is a normal part of their development. The best thing you can do here is continue to provide nutritious meals at regular intervals and let the child decide what to eat. Parents provide, children decide! Kids of this age who are involved in meal planning and preparation are more likely to eat the food put in front of them. After age 6, children who are fed with a diplomatic feeding style will come back around to enjoy the food that their family eats, usually with very little meal-time drama.
Parents who understand the WHAT, HOW and WHY of feeding their children have pleasant mealtimes and minimal food struggles. When a feeding challenge appears, ask yourself these questions: Is WHAT I’m feeding my child appropriate? Is HOW I’m feeding my child contributing to this problem? And is there a reason WHY my child is acting this way?
For more information on this topic, we highly recommend the book Fearless Feeding by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen.