Raising healthy, adventurous eaters is what we're all striving for as parents, but the road to get there can be a bit... challenging. My kids are just like any other kids - they have certain tastes and preferences when it comes to food and definitely test our patience at mealtimes. Just like most parents, my husband and I deal with mealtime power struggles with our kids. But for the most part, family meals are positive and happy, and our kids eat nutritious, varied diets. This hasn't happened because I teach my kids about the importance of nutrition.
Because I don't.
Instead, I follow Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility in Feeding and do my best to:
As a pediatric dietitian, I have a toolkit of strategies that I've used over the years when feeding my kids, but my best advice comes from personal experience as a mom.
Here are 3 strategies that I swear by for raising healthy, adventurous eaters:
I've written about this in almost all of my articles on kids nutrition and feeding, and for good reason. It's imperative that, as the feeder, you take the pressure off completely at meals and snacks (as hard as that can be). Even fun or playful forms of pressure will hinder rather than help a child’s food acceptance. In fact, kids can become more and more resistant to trying new foods when they feel pressure. In our house, pressuring my kids to eat creates power struggles, which makes our family meals tense and negative, which inevitably leads to mealtime battles.
Instead, I really try to take the pressure off and resist the urge to micro-manage my kids' eating. I serve one family meal, with lots of variety (and at least one food that I know each of my kids will like) and leave the rest up to my kids. When they say they're "done," I remind them that once they get down, there is no more food and mealtime is done.
If you're finding it hard to take the pressure off, remember that it's well worth it. It will be one of the most important things you do to ensure that your grow to love a variety of nutritious foods and develop a healthy relationship with food long-term. As soon as you take the pressure off, your child will feel more inclined to be more adventurous with food. Take the focus off of food and use family meals to connect and bond.
Research shows that one of the biggest determinants of a child's eating habits and behaviours around food is the eating habits of the parent (specifically the mother). This isn't surprising, however so many well-meaning parents focus more on trying to get their kids to eat a certain way, rather than focusing on themselves. Knowing this, I do my best to eat with my kids (even for five to ten minutes), be adventurous with food myself and turn off all screens so that I can truly connect with my kids and model healthy and mindful eating. The payoff is huge. Just the other day, I consciously put my fork down in between each bite, and then observed by 3-year-old daughter do the exact same thing, watching my fork carefully. Using this strategy not only benefits my kids' eating, but mine too!
Too often I hear parents teaching their young kids about the different food groups, specific nutrients like protein, carbohydrate and fat, or even simpler concepts of "healthy foods" vs. "unhealthy foods." Unfortunately, young children can't grasp and apply the principles of nutrition - even the simple ones. Although they can repeat phrases like "this food is healthy" or "this food has protein," they don't actually understand what it means or how it affects them. I can honestly say that my son has learned more about nutrition from his grade-one teacher than he has from me, his dietitian mom. And when he comes home and tells me that his teacher says that protein is very important for health, I ask him what that means, and he has no idea. I tell him instead that he doesn't have to worry about protein, or any other nutrient for that matter. Those are adult concepts. Instead, I expose my kids to lots of different nutritious foods everyday, offer dessert foods now and then for fun (sometimes with a meal), and make mealtimes positive and pressure-free. This is the best nutrition education that we can give our kids.
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