Navigating Family Feeding
Let’s be honest, being a parent can be tough, and there is no instruction manual included! There are so, so many things that parents have to make decisions about that can really make such a difference in how our kids grow and learn to navigate the world around them. While every family is unique and every kid within every family is different, there are a few things that parents can try that can help take some of the guesswork out of feeding littles.
Tip #1 Keep the long game in mind
As parents, we want our kids to grow up to be the best possible versions of themselves. When we think of this as it relates to food, it can be easy to get caught up in worrying about whether they are getting enough calcium or protein or any other nutrient that might be on our minds. While nutrition is certainly important, it can be more helpful to take a step back and consider the life skills we want our kids to develop related to food and feeding themselves. In the end, our kids are going to be so much better off if they can develop a healthy relationship with food than if they are forced to eat all of their vegetables at dinnertime. The nuances of exactly what a healthy relationship with food is are too extensive for this blog post, but on a basic level, we want kids to experience that all bodies are good bodies that need regular nourishment, and that there are no good or bad foods, and that they can trust their bodies to know exactly what they need to allow them to show up in life as their best selves.
Tip #2 Get clear about whose job is whose
As with many things in parenting, if kids are given too much or too little autonomy chaos ensues. Meals and snacks fall right in line with this. When we think about feeding kids, a strategy that works well for many families is for parents to be in charge of the what and the when of eating and the kids are in charge of how much (or if) of eating. It is so helpful for kids to learn that they can trust their bodies to tell them when they have had enough. The best way we can do that as parents is to show them that we trust their bodies. We do that by offering them a variety of foods at regular intervals (the what and the when) and then truly letting them decide how much they are going to eat of what is offered.
Tip #3 Make “treats” less of a treat
Is your child constantly asking for cookies, candy, popsicles, etc.? Kids ask for these things because they are delicious, but they also ask for them because the way we, as parents, present them often makes them seem like the best thing on the menu. If you are encouraging your child to eat all of the meal offered or to eat just two more bites or just taste the broccoli and then you can have the cookie, what your child is hearing is that all this other food must be really bad if my parents have to reward me for eating it. You are also reinforcing the concept that food can be used as a reward after an arduous or loathsome task. Instead of offering foods that are well-accepted only at the end of the meal, try offering them right along with the meal. Yup, even serve them on the very same plate. When you do that, your child sees that all of the foods on the plate are equal, and it encourages them to eat a wider variety of all foods.
Tip #4 Eat together and eat the same food (whenever possible)
One of the roles of a parent is to teach their children. We teach them how to cross the street, how to treat others, and how to take care of themselves when they become adults, among countless other things. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we teach our kids how to do these things by telling them what to do. When we think about it, though, most of us know that we actually teach our kids by modeling behaviors. This is one of the reasons why family meals are so important. Our kids don’t learn to eat vegetables because we tell them about the nutritional value of vegetables. Our kids learn to eat vegetables by watching us eat and enjoy vegetables. Family meals are about so much more than food, though. While not always as pleasant as TV might have us believe, family meals provide a dedicated time every single day for all members of the family to be together and connect with each other. Meals eaten together are an opportunity for adults to model abstract concepts like honoring our own hunger and fullness, and to show our kids what it is like to trust our own internal cues. It can be very helpful for parents to remember that it is ok to set boundaries during mealtimes about what you are/are not willing to do. For example, if you just finished cutting up meat for your toddler and pulling too-hot soup out of the fridge for your older child and are finally sitting down to eat your meal, it is ok to let your child know they need to wait a few minutes before you will get up to fulfill their next request. Mealtimes should be an opportunity for you to eat a pleasant meal, too!
As I said in the beginning, every family is unique, and these tips may not work for everyone. If you experiment with one thing and find that it doesn’t work for you or your child, that is totally ok and doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you or your child - that just may not be your thing. If you are feeling stuck or like you need more or different strategies, we can help! There is an online course through Positive Nutrition Academy titled “Raising Intuitive Eaters” that walks you through all of these ideas and so many more (link here). Or if you are feeling like you need a lot of support, our registered dietitians would be happy to help you explore your specific situation. You can learn more about our team and find a link to schedule an appointment here.