Let me tell you about the worst-ever night in our household. It creeps up every couple of weeks or so and threatens to tear us all to shreds. Maybe you’ve seen it before, too?
It’s called salad night. You know, the “healthy” dinner meal you try to slip in between lasagna night and taco night? Right — that sneaky move doesn’t work for me either, friend.
Just the mention of “salad” sends my youngest son into convulsions. Immediately, his eyes get wide, lips pouty. Then his shoulders start moving upward, and his body turns into a noodle. Like an actual floppy, cooked spaghetti noodle. His legs give way, and he dramatically falls to the ground like he’s been taken over by a big, scary monster.
But there’s no big scary monster. It’s just my 7-year-old. And his intense hatred for green salad.
I’ve got to admit — we had a rough few months last year with food. It seemed like we fought every single night over eating vegetables. Good intentions didn’t work. And neither did threats of “You won’t get your dessert!”
My husband and I became weary and almost angry, dreading dinner around the table each night. That time used to fill us up, make us laugh, help us connect with our kids. But that I-won’t-eat-anything-green season? It almost took us down, y’all.
We were stressed. The kids were stressed. And our whole house could feel it.
And then I started thinking: Is a green salad worth a family breakdown? No, it’s not. I want my son to want to eat healthy foods, but it won’t work by threatening and force feeding him broccoli. In fact, those things will do more harm than good.
We were wrong. We were more concerned with being authoritative figures than we were with developing his love for a healthy, balanced diet. This whole debate isn’t about punishing him for being a picky eater; it’s about his lifelong relationship with food. And as his mama, it’s my job to cultivate it.
So, I whipped out my notebook from my stint as a healthy eating educator for Whole Foods Market and got to work. It was time to get back to our roots, to get back in the kitchen with my kids and learn to love food again.
Because We’re Still Getting it Wrong!
Toddlers and kids who don’t like certain foods will most likely still grow up to eat a variety of them (fingers crossed, right?).
When I was younger, I basically ate two food groups: macaroni and cheese, and chicken fingers. But now? I can make the best kale salad you’ve ever eaten. So, while, yes, many of us are dealing with kids who are “picky” eaters, the conversation is actually bigger than that because when it comes to eating as a culture we’re still getting parts of it wrong.
Evidence: Childhood obesity rates are still on the rise. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP; aap.org) reports that rates of overweight and obese children have increased in all age groups among children ages 2 – 19, and, shockingly, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; cdc.gov) reports that 18.5 percent of children in that age category are obese, affecting almost 14 million children and adolescents. The number of obese and overweight children reaches almost 35 percent today, according to the AAP.
Simply stated: kids are eating too much of the foods that aren’t healthy for them, and many kids move their bodies too little.
Lifelong physical health consequences emerge with obesity, and equally as scary are mental health issues that crop up. Children who are overweight or obese experience low self-esteem, negative body image, or even depression and anxiety, reports the AAP. If one-third of children and adolescents are obese or overweight, adults are definitely in need of a positive, improved approach to feeding kids.
Think about our culture’s general approach to getting dinner on the table — that is, if we’re not quickly ordering a pizza or driving through a fast food joint.
We hurriedly prepare food then slap plates down in front of our kids and expect them to eat it all — and like it, too.
But here’s the thing. We can’t completely remove our kids from the process of choosing and preparing meals and then expect them to have a positive relationship with food. We need to have ongoing conversations about healthy eating choices with our kids from the time that they are small and then keep the dialog and mindfulness going for them as they grow. And most of all? We need to involve kids in the planning and executing of family meals.
Mouths of Babes: Happy Eating from the Start of Solids
The process of feeding babies includes no inherent struggles at the start. Your job is to simply respond to your child’s hunger call. Next comes solid food — and it’s good to delight in Baby’s excitement for mealtime while exploring new tastes and textures in an ongoing way. It’s important to remember, however, that what we feed infants in the beginning can shape the kinds of foods they gravitate toward as they grow older.
A few helpful tips:
• Avoid fruit juice for children younger than 1
• If you make your own baby food, don’t add salt or sugar
• Don’t force babies to eat everything
• Little ones know when they are full, and forcing them to eat when they aren’t truly hungry isn’t a good habit to start.
Toddlers: Playing With Food and Avoiding Battles
Plenty of moms and dads stress out about what and how much their toddlers and preschoolers eat. But parental stress around food actually can create a food battle between you and your child. Think about it: your toddler’s tummy is very small. If you expect him to eat a full plate at every meal you will be disappointed regularly — and so will he. Learn to take eating cues
from your child.
“The great thing about most children is they are able to recognize their hunger and fullness cues and will eat more some days and less other days,” says Jessica Bennett, M.S., R.D., L.D., a dietitian at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “While it can be scary and frustrating for parents, as children grow, their needs increase and decrease,” she adds.
So you have to accept this and not make a big deal out of it or risk igniting a battle by bringing too much attention to food.
“It’s best not to make it a battle,” Bennett says. “Sometimes the less you talk about it the better.”
But that can be hard. Especially when you see your toddler sitting in front of his food turning it into finger paint or if he goes meal to meal eating very little.
“The best way to avoid a food battle is to offer healthy food at three meals and two snacks a day,” says Donna Hamacher, M.D., a pediatrician at Pediatric Associates of Franklin.
“When the child indicates that he is done eating, let him be done. Young children’s appetites can vary between meals so if they do not eat much at one meal, they likely were not very hungry; they will eat more at other meals,” she adds.
Remember, you want to develop a positive experience around meal times. So Hamacher says it’s even OK to let your child play with his food.
“Allowing young children to touch or play with their food can help them accept new foods,” Hamacher suggests. “It can take 10 times or more of offering a new food for a child to decide to eat the food,” she adds.
So if he prefers to mash up his peas and carrots before any actually make their way to his mouth, don’t worry about it!
Help Your Child Discover New Foods
The more exposure you give your kids to new, whole foods, the more their curiosities will peak. Help to develop their interest in new foods by looking at produce together in books and then going on a special outing just to check out fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. Let your child pick out a few different items that he would like to taste and buy a few items at a time. Your child may be more likely to try new foods if he’s involved in the process. But don’t get discouraged if your child doesn’t like the foods he’s picked out to try — remember, tasting is an experiment and learning to like foods is a journey from babyhood onward. There’s nothing “wrong” about it!
“It is developmentally appropriate for young children to be picky about food,” Hamacher says. So be very cautious about telling your child — labeling your child — as picky or fussy.
“It is unhelpful for parents to tell their children that they are picky,” Hamacher cautions. “Instead, try to work with your child by letting him help with food planning and preparation or trying to give him choices between two healthy options,” she suggests.
Sweets, Snacks and Balance
When your kids are infants, feeding them a healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, protein and dairy is easy because you are in control. But somewhere after a child starts feeding himself, the preferance for eating sweet treats and crunchy salty snacks enters in and it becomes harder and harder to get your child to balance his weekly intake with fruits and vegetables. Parents can get confused during the 15+ years it takes for their child to grow. Kids seem to be able to eat whatever they want to without restraint or weight gain and so you let them. But if you neglect to establish healthy eating guidelines for your kids, by the time upward growth slows, outwardly growth will take over. Especially if your child’s accustomed to a diet high in carbohydrates, fats and sweets.
While your child’s young, focus on positively encouraging him to choose pleasing healthy flavors when he is hungry. Establish that snacks and desserts are treats to enjoy from time to time but certainly not endlessly.
Let’s face it, many adults and kids eat out of sheer boredom.
Especially when a parent is at work or unable to supervise kids at home, setting limits on the number of snacks your child eats is practically impossible. Kids go through growth spurts, too, and are sometimes bottomless pits!
But avoid having too many processed foods in your pantry and provide more access to a variety of fruits, yogurts and veggies with hummus or other low-fat dips instead. Also, aim to establish consistent mealtimes so your child knows what to expect and he doesn’t have to become a constant grazer.
For family dinners, aim to provide a healthy meal that includes a vegetable. If your child hasn’t loaded himself up with snacks prior to mealtime, he will likely participate in eating with the family. If not, avoid offering something else for him to eat.
“Children are really smart and will learn they never have to eat what you are cooking if you go by this rule,” Bennett says. “A better thing to do is to put everything on the plate that the family is eating and to not make it a battle if they choose not to eat it,” she adds.
“If a child refuses a meal, I don’t recommend offering something else,” says Hamacher. “This can encourage a child to become a picky eater. Instead, try to include one healthy item as part of the meal that you know they will eat,” she adds.
Create a Positive Food Culture at Home
• Know that magic happens at mealtime.
You can connect with your kids in conversation and you can use this time to model healthy practices with food as well as learn about what foods each of your kids love … or not.
• Offer the right-sized portions for kids.
Bennett says to use the size of your child’s hand as a guide. Toddler portions should be a quarter of an adult portion, and children should eat child-sized portions until adolescence, Hamacher says.
• Encourage everyone to eat the same food at mealtime.
• Don’t battle.
If kids don’t like what’s served, offer a piece of fruit. If they are hungry, they will eat it.