You Can Lead A Child to Food…
This is the golden rule of feeding children that I spend my days teaching countless stressed out parents that struggle nightly for their child to eat “just one bite”. After the negotiations, bribery, promises, stress, tears and at times outright tantrums (from children and parents alike) – is that one bite really worth it?
For all the moms out there dreading dinner time- here are some of my top tips for feeding your child while keeping your cool.
What, Where & When: This is the responsibility of the parent and really all that we have control of. The sooner you feel at peace with that; the better the experience will be for you. Provide your child with a balanced meal/snack in an appropriate feeding environment and at a suitable time- and you’ve done your job.
Watching The Clock: When it comes to feeding toddlers and young children a schedule is your best bet for success. The magic number tends to be 2 ½ to 3 hours in between meals to generate appetite, which is what you need when it comes for success at feeding times. For younger children, grazing tends to actually result in fewer calories in than scheduled eaters.
Small & Big Meals: Children wax and wane when it comes to appetites. Some meals they will eat like heavyweight champs, others they’ll just push the food around the plate. This is completely normal and should be expected. If your child doesn’t eat well at a meal, know that another planned meal/snack is scheduled in a few hours and he/she will likely eat better then.
Bring it Down a Notch: Plan for some quiet time before the meal- such as hand washing, reading a story, folding napkins for the meal etc. You never want to take an excited child away from play to put them to the confines of a booster seat or high chair as this can feel like punishment and start the meal off on the wrong foot. For bigger kids it’s great to get them involved with some small pre-meal tasks such as setting the table, making placemats or helping with simple food prep. I’ve even had a particular Lego loving patient build a special centerpiece for the table each night. Anything you can do to increase your child’s investment in the meal by involving him in the process can create a sense of pride to make the meal a success.
Making the Plate: For a balanced meal- just remember the rule of 3. Provide at least three food groups per meal and you’re bound to provide a balanced diet overall for your child. Meals are also great times to work on trying new foods. To avoid an “all or nothing” situation, I recommend offering two “Comfort” foods- i.e. foods your child is eating currently or previously accepted. Paired with one “New” food- i.e. a food your child has never tried or rejected in the past. This allows your child to still eat adequately from the foods you know he/she has enjoyed before, while offering the opportunity for trying a new food.
Great Expectations: A few meal time guidelines can go a long way for stopping the nightly negotiation of “How much longer?” “Do I have to try it?” and “How many more bites?” My best tips for solving these nightly problems are simple, but tried and true. First- have a time expectation for your child to be at the table. The range is generally 15-35 minutes with the younger the child the shorter the time. It can be helpful to use a timer with a bell to signal the end of the meal and avoid having the parent take the role of the “meal ender.” For trying new foods, I do feel that incentives can work. For a successful no-thank-you-bite (i.e. a bite/chew/swallow of a new food) I have parents set up a non-food based after dinner privilege which has ranged from extra play time, choosing a bedtime story or even 10 minutes with Mom’s IPhone to help create some benefits to trying the new food. Tying the no-thank-you-bite into a favorite character such as “Buzz Lightyear Bite” can make it a bit more fun. You can even get a special character spoon to go along with the no-thank-you-bite which can help with the fun aspect and help define the amount of the bite. For whatever expectations you start at meal times- just remember that consistency is key. If your child pushes the boundaries at meals and you give in, it signals to your child that there is negotiating room if he acts out and this can become a regular occurrence at the dinner table.
Game Time: Your child is now at the table with a balanced meal that may offer a new food trying opportunity. What to do from here? Enjoy your meal with your little one, stay consistent with the behavior expectations you’ve set and don’t stress about what foods or how much he or she eats.