As parents, we sometimes put our “short-term lens” on when it comes to feeding, especially with young kids. We’re often in a rush and want our kids to eat something NOW, or we feel frustrated that they've only eaten the pasta or bread, and left everything else (especially the green stuff). Having three young kids, I know first hand how frustrating meals can be, and how tempting short-term solutions (aka pressuring) such as bribing, coaxing, reminding, and spoon-feeding can be to get them to eat something — anything — healthy, and to speed up meals.
Unfortunately, these short-term strategies are counter-productive when it comes to our kids’ eating success.
Although it can be challenging, it’s important to put our “long-term feeding lens” on, to help our kids form positive thoughts and beliefs about food.
After working with kids and adults in my nutrition counselling practice for over 10 years I’ve learned that the quick-fixes that work so well with young kids, can have lasting negative effects. In the most drastic cases, pressure to eat (or not to eat) certain foods, or specific amounts of food in childhood can result in long-term severe picky eating issues, disordered eating patterns or full blown Eating Disorders. In most cases, pressure results in frustrating picky eating behaviours that persist over time, resulting in unpleasant mealtimes and stressed out parents.
Think about your child’s long-term eating success as a work-in-progress, and try to keep your eye on the prize: raising a healthy, happy eater who loves lots of different foods. This takes a lot of patience and a lot of time, so try not to get discouraged.
Remember, your job as the parent is to provide healthy, balanced meals and snacks at appropriate intervals (every 2-4 hours depending on age), in a safe and distraction-free environment.
The rest is up to your child. Period.
Once parents realize this, most are able to breath a sigh of relief. Mealtimes suddenly become more enjoyable and less stressful. Yes, your child may not eat a single speck of green, but you’ve done your job and that’s all you can do. When your child refuses to eat a particular food, try to think of it as an opportunity to talk positively about that food, model healthy eating yourself, and to encourage your child to explore that food in other ways, such as touching it, licking them or politely playing with it. This will bring your child one step closer to trying, accepting and enjoying those foods in the future.
Think about it this way: Your child will benefit more from having a positive experience with a new or rejected food and not eating it versus having a negative experience with that food and eating it.
In other words, the goal is not to get your child to eat his broccoli.
The goal is to get him to think about eating it in the future. To make broccoli seem a little less scary or foreign so that he can eventually feel ready to put it in his mouth, and maybe one day chew it, and then maybe down the road, swallow it. That might mean that he watches you and your spouse eat broccoli 20 times before he’s ready to taste it (your child seeing you eat it regularly will translate into "it's normal to eat broccoli"). It might mean serving it with melted cheese on top or with Ranch dressing. Or maybe it means playing with it by pretending that it’s a tree at first.
Every encounter with the broccoli should be as positive as possible. Even if it’s simply letting it be on his plate (or a separate "tester" plate). Pressuring your child to eat something healthy will NOT make him like it. In fact, it will probably do the opposite.
Even though we CAN use our authority as parents to get our kids to eat–we can even force them if we want to–it will only discourage them from truly accepting that food, and it could even turn them off even more.
Most parents can rest assured that they kids is meeting their nutrient requirements by the end of the week (even though sometimes this seems impossible). So, the next time you serve broccoli (or any other food that your child refuses to eat), remember to put your long-term feeding lens on, do your job of feeding, let your child do her job of eating and take the pressure off. It's not ALL about nutrition.
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