7 Rules on How Not to Feed Kids
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For many parents, feeding kids can often feel like a thankless job. Maybe you have one child who just never wants to eat what the rest of the family is eating. Or kids who don't like the lunch you packed today, but last week they loved it. And then there's the push-pull of not wanting to feel like a short-order cook, but wanting your child to, well, just eat.
There is so much advice circulating out there on the internet, in magazines and in books. And, unfortunately, there's also some advice that you hear (or maybe even read) that's outdated or straight-up wrong. Here we've compiled a short list of what not to do when you're feeding your kids. It feels negative, right? And not typically our M.O. But we think of it like this: knowing what not to do gives you the foundation to figure out what to do on your own terms as a parent, and to discover what works for your family.
1. Don't label your child a picky eater.
Most young kids go through a picky-eating phase—typically around age 2. It's completely normal. "If you want your child to move beyond the picky-eating phase, treat every food refusal as a non-event, and don't draw attention to that refusal by labeling your child a picky eater, or by trying to get her to eat the food," says Carol Danaher, M.P.H., R.D.N., a board and faculty member of the Ellyn Satter Institute. Labeling your child as "picky" is negative baggage she will then need to overcome when she is ready to eat a wide variety of foods. Plus, new research suggests picky eaters will turn out just fine.
2. Don't make separate meals.
Kids have no incentive to try something new or eat a less-than-favorite food if they know there's a PB&J waiting in the wings. "This is my number-one piece of advice to parents," says Sally Kuzemchak, M.S., R.D., author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and founder of RealMomNutrition.com. "Make one meal a night and be sure there's something on the table that they like, even if it's just a bowl of fruit or bread."
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3. Don't tell them how much to eat.
From birth, children intrinsically know how much to eat (it's called intuitive eating). It's also typical for their intake to vary from meal to meal and day to day, even dramatically. And in your defense as a parent: there's no way for you to know much your child needs to eat at any given meal. So if/when you get involved in how much your child eats, you're potentially interfering with their Mother Nature-given ability to assess their hunger, satiety and appetite. "Research consistently shows that when children are pressured to eat more, they eat less. And when children are restricted from eating as much as they want, they will find a way to overeat," says Danaher. "Pressure to eat more or less also makes mealtime unpleasant for children." So, parents, give yourself (and your kids) a break and give in to the fact that at one meal your child may eat just one bit of toast, and at another he may clean his plate and ask for more.
4. Don't beg, bribe or bargain.
"Resorting to hostage-level negotiations makes you seem desperate—and kids can smell desperation a mile away," says Kuzemchak. It also puts unnecessary pressure on kids to eat certain foods when we as parents should trust our kids to eat what they need. Sorry, parents, but this includes using dessert as a bargaining chip. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics say children should not be rewarded with food. "It sets up the notion that whatever the meal is in front of them is, it's the yucky stuff they have to get through to get the good stuff. If you're having dessert that night, everyone should be allowed to have it, regardless of how many bites of Brussels sprouts they had," advises Kuzemchak.
5. Don't tout a food's healthfulness.
You—an adult!—might be motivated by how much vitamin C something has in it, or whether it's a lean source of protein, but research shows that kids aren't. "Kids care more about how food looks and tastes, so play up how delicious something is and pay attention to how it looks on the plate. Presentation matters a lot," advises Kuzemchak.
6. Don't let your child eat just anywhere.
More specifically, don't let your child walk around with their food, or eat in front of the television, or in their bedroom. Eating wherever (and also whenever) can spoil your child's appetite for the family meal. "It's at the family meal that your child learns to eat new foods and connect with her family. Eating is important, food is delicious, and it deserves your child's attention," says Danaher.
7. Don't count.
Yes, it's true that it could take as many as 15 to 20 times of your child seeing a food on their plate for them to eat it. But, also, if they see you eat it and naturally enjoy it (that's key versus your phony playing up how "delicious" a food is), then over time they're more likely to eat it. But—here's the bad news—it could take years. So enjoy the food you enjoy and stop counting how many times you've exposed your child to a certain food.
Feeding kids is hard work. And while we've compiled a list of what not to do, you're probably doing a lot of things right when it comes to feeding your kids. All parents deserve some grace during mealtimes. Dinners with kids won't always look perfect—in fact, most of the time, they're probably far from it. But skipping some of the tactics mentioned above can help everyone in the family enjoy meals a little more and maybe eat a little bit better.