Are you flying by the seat of your pants when it comes to feeding your kids? Pleading with your child at the dinner table, leaving meals to the last minute, and living with that unsettled feeling that things aren’t as good as they could be?
For many of us in the feeding trenches, we have the same question–why is feeding my family so hard?
Well, maybe you’re doing it all wrong.
Check in with yourself and see if you’re doing any of these things, which inevitably make feeding your family harder:
1. You Encourage Your Child to Eat More.
“Just take another bite, sweetie, then you can get down from the table.” With the best of intentions, parents try to get their kids to eat a little bit more. What they don’t realize is pushing more may lead to weight problems. According to a 2007 study in Appetite, 85% of parents tried to get their kindergarten children to eat more using words of praise, or pressure. Parents were successful with 83% of children eating more than they might otherwise have. Yes, you guessed it, kids were eating beyond their appetite.
Instead: Let your child stop eating when he’s full. Here’s how you can follow-through.
2. You Polish Off that Baby Bottle or Baby Jar.
It’s hard to waste an ounce of formula or a spoonful of baby food. Some parents push those last swigs and spoons to mark a successful feeding. A 2009 article in Advances in Pediatrics noted that “emptying the bottle” and serving larger volumes of formula at feedings were associated with excess weight gain in the first six months of life. This is a vulnerable time, as growth is rapid and cells grow and change, possibly affecting the way energy is stored in the body and influencing obesity development.
Instead: Be careful to read baby’s feeding cues and respond appropriately. More on that here.
3. You Entice with Dessert for Eating Well (or Trying).
Using food, particularly desserts, to reward children for their eating performance may have a surprising effect. We like to think it helps children develop good eating habits, but research tells us rewarding with sweets in particular, shifts a child’s food value system to sweets. A 2007 review article on the influence of parents on eating behavior in children found that using food as reward increased preschool-age children’s preferences for those foods, having an unintended consequence of promoting food preferences for high calorie, unhealthy fare.
Instead: Don’t tie sweets and other tasty foods to what or how much your child eats. Balance sweets everyday and make eating a non-condition for enjoying them.
4. You Try to Control Offsite Eating.
Recently, a mom asked me how to control what and how much her daughter ate at school. According to a 2011 study from Johns Hopkins University, parents have little influence over what their kids eat, especially as they get older. In fact, the outside environment (school, church, and peers) has more sway than parents! Kids tend to want what they cannot have, so tight control over food choice and quantity in or outside the home may have unwanted effects like out-of-control eating, and choosing unhealthy items.
Instead: Have a home environment that is balanced with mostly nutritious foods, a little bit of “Fun” food, and let your child be in charge of their eating.
5. You Plate Your Child’s Food.
Plating food seems like a good idea– you can control what goes on the plate, and how much is offered. But, when children receive a plated meal (to which they haven’t had input), it may open Pandora’s box. “I don’t like this!” “I didn’t want that.” “Ew, it’s touching—I’m not eating it.” Servings may be too much for the child, leaving a partially eaten plate. In the end, parent and child expectations aren’t met …and you know where that goes.
Instead: Let children serve themselves and have a say about what goes on their plate. Here’s how I tackled this one.
6. You Talk Too Much about Nutrition.
Some parents do the nutrition education thing too early and too much. Hands-on learning (cooking) is most effective with school-age kids, and answering their questions, as they come up, is appropriate– providing a nutrition lecture on heart disease is not. Save the deep, hard-core nutrition lessons for the older teen (again, when they ask is best), and remember many adults still find nutrition confusing.
Instead: Provide plenty of options for your child to be hands-on in the kitchen and your teen freedom to experiment with food. Answer nutrition questions when they come up.
7. You Use Non-Human Helpers.
Parents are busier than ever and use feeding “helpers” like bottle holders, sippy cups, high chairs, pacifiers clipped to the shirt, and more. While these make life easier, they may take away from the opportunity to connect and attach with your child. Experts are clear on the developmental task of infancy: attachment. Researchers find that little ones with insecure attachment to their caregiver may have difficulty regulating their food intake. And some of these “harmless” helpers may not be a good idea—more on that here.
Instead: Be the human influence you were meant to be and care for your child’s needs in a hands-on way.
8. You are Too Clean.
Today’s parents love clean kids, in clean clothes, playing in their clean house. But when it comes to food and learning to eat, little kids need the freedom to get down and dirty with food. Getting messy with food allows taste, texture, smell, and hand-to-mouth manipulation – a great way for baby to learn about food and how to eat.
Instead: Let your baby and toddler learn about food with all his senses—even if it’s messy.
9. You Make an Alternate Meal (or Snack).
Some parents make back-up meals for their family members. “Catering” to food requests (or demands) on a regular basis not only encourages picky eating, according to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, kids miss out on nutritious foods like fruits, veggies, and dairy products.
Instead: Make one meal for the whole family. Read this for how to make that happen.
10. You Let Your Child Eat “Whatever” Because He’s Thin/Fit/Healthy/An Athlete.
“I’m not worried about what he eats because he’s on the skinny side,” or “She’s an athlete, so she can eat whatever she wants—she burns it all off!” While this is probably true for now, parents need to remember that children are developing flavor preferences and eating habits. Eating behaviors from childhood are hard to shake later on when the body has stopped growing and exercise isn’t as frequent or intense.
Instead: Teach your child to eat for a lifetime with nutritious foods and a healthy food balance.
11. You Allow Little Tastes a Little Too Early.
A sip of momma’s latte, daddy’s soda or Grammy’s ice cream—what’s the harm in a little taste for baby and toddler? Infants are born pre-wired to prefer the flavor of sweet and fat. Salt preference comes around six months. For all three, the more exposure (read: tastes, sips, bites), the stronger the preference for these flavors.
Instead: Hold off on sweets, fried and salty foods until after age two and then offer them occasionally.
How did you do? Which of these do you need to work on, if any?