This post was updated in May 2019.
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, if feeding is hard, I’m betting that some common feeding mistakes are getting in the way.
As a pediatric nutritionist and a mom, I know that you are trying your best to really raise a healthy eater. But you’ve got some obstacles and challenges to face.
From the plethora of sweets and treats to the crazy chaos of getting dinner on the table, today’s parents are more challenged than ever before.
This simple fact can set you up for some blunders around the table.
Feeding mistakes make the job of nourishing your child harder.
11 Common Feeding Mistakes Parents Make
In my years of private practice and working in hospitals, I’ve noticed some common feeding mistakes parents make around the meal table. I’m sharing them here to help you avoid them.
1. Encouraging 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. Especially if their toddler won’t eat.
What they don’t realize is pushing children to eat 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. Don’t force kids to eat more than they want.
2. Polishing Off the Bottle or 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 success at feeding.
There are several unintentional mistakes with baby feeding that parents make.
For example, 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.
Infancy is a vulnerable time of growth and development, as you know. Growth is rapid and cells grow and change, which may affect the way energy is stored in the body.
Early alterations in storage and usage of nutrients may influence excessive weight gain and even obesity development.
Instead: Be careful to read baby’s feeding cues and respond appropriately. More on that here.
3. Bribing with Dessert in Exchange for Eating Veggies or Trying New Food
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 favor the sweet treats we offer.
A 2007 review article on the influence of parents on eating behavior in children found that using food as reward increased preschool-aged children’s preferences for those foods.
They may also promote 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 by using my 90/10 Rule and don’t make eating a condition for enjoying them.
4. Trying to Control Eating Outside of Your Home
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. Tight control over food in or outside the home may have unwanted effects such as out-of-control eating or choosing unhealthy items when kids have access to them.
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. Pre-Plating Your Child’s Food
Pre-plating food seems like a good idea– you can control what goes on the plate, and how much you offer.
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.”
Also, food servings may be too large for your child, leaving her to partially eat what’s on it. 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 with my own kids.
6. Talking 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). 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. Using Non-Human ‘Helpers’ for Feeding
Parents are busier than ever. As such, they use feeding “helpers” such as 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.
Instead: Be the human influence you were meant to be and care for your child’s needs in a hands-on way.
8. Cleaning Up After Eating [Too Much]
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. Making an Alternate Meal [or Rescue 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, but kids may miss out on nutritious foods, according to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Instead: Make one meal for the whole family. Read this for how to make that happen.
10. Letting Your Child Eat Anything
“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. Allowing Little Tastes Too Early
A sip of momma’s latte, daddy’s soda or Grammy’s ice cream—what’s the harm in a little sweets for baby and toddler?
Infants are born pre-wired to prefer the flavor of sweet and fat.
Salt preference emerges around six months. For all three, the more exposure (read: tastes, sips, bites), the stronger the preference for these flavors down the road.
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 11 feeding mistakes are making it harder for you to feed your child?
Need More Help Feeding Your Child?
I’ve got several resources for you:
The Nourished Child Project — a self-education program for parents of kids aged 4-14 years. You’ll learn the food system, feeding approach and healthy habits to raise a healthy child.