Feeding kids can feel really confusing. Of course we all want our kids to eat lots of nutritious foods, but does that mean we should ban sugar? What about at birthday parties? Can picky eaters learn to love a variety of healthy foods? How often should we feed them? Should they get snacks when they ask for one? There are so many questions we have as parents, especially if we feel that the way we were brought up didn’t cultivate the best relationship with food. Teaching kids to enjoy eating and have a naturally balanced diet without effort is actually much easier than we think. Keep reading to learn more about feeding your child so they grow up to have a healthy relationship with food and a balanced diet.
Work on your food relationship
A big problem parents run into is that they want their children to have positive, healthy relationships with food, but they have their own issues with food so it’s extra hard to guide their kids. If you tend to overeat, undereat, have a highly emotional relationship with food, avoid many foods due to pickiness, or follow a restrictive diet, it’s a good idea to spend some time unearthing why you struggle with feeding yourself. It should be joyful, easy, and nourishing. If it’s stressful in any way, that’s a sign that your food relationship needs some work.
All of the tips listed below for teaching kids to have a positive and healthy relationship with food will be very helpful for your own food relationship. It’s important to know that food issues tend to not really be about the food. Our inner world gets reflected in our behavioural patterns, especially in the case of eating. If emotional eating, bingeing, or restricting is an issue for you, it’s important to look below the surface. Tend to your emotional state through meditation, journaling, yoga, and therapy and your “food issues” will likely decrease dramatically. Stress eating and emotional eating are more about the difficulty managing stress and emotions than they are about having a lack of willpower. Remember: depriving yourself of foods you enjoy makes you crave them more. Enjoy those foods slowly, mindfully, and fully. Banning food that you love just puts them on a pedestal and sets you up to become obsessed with them. When we allow a variety of foods, our bodies naturally crave balance, so let your body be your guide. If you find yourself eating the same foods over and over again, use the advice below on exposure and releasing mealtime pressure to help get yourself used to a wider variety of foods.
Modeling healthy eating
Kids pick up on what you do. When they watch you genuinely enjoying vegetables, they get curious and want to try it. If you deprive yourself of foods you enjoy and sneak-eat them later, your kids will notice, especially as they get a bit older. I remember when I was finally tall enough to see that sometimes my mom was hiding an open container of ice cream and a spoon behind the fruit bowl. Your kids will find hidden chocolate bars and bags of chips. Hiding food makes it seem even more desirable to kids, and they will begin to sneak it too. If you want your kids to eat a balanced diet, you have to model that for them. When you show only restrained eating of 100% “healthy foods” and have a chaotic relationship with sweets and snacks, that’s what they learn to do too.
So eat the vegetables you love. Talk about how delicious your salad is. Show them that you genuinely enjoy a variety of nourishing foods, but also show them that eating cookies is fun and doesn’t have to be done in secret with overwhelming guilt. When you serve both brownies and broccoli at the table, they learn how to eat those foods in a calm manner without getting the idea that brownies are so insanely delicious that we can’t trust ourselves to have them. When they are grown up, they will have access to all foods all the time. Now is the time to teach them how to naturally eat in a balanced way before they are out in the world. It’s usually not helpful to enforce a strict rule for what “balance” means. It tends to cause restrained eating during the week with weekend binges, or restrained eating during the day with nighttime snack binges. Listen to your hunger signals, and honour your cravings mindfully. Aim for more steady eating instead of those intense ups and downs. It’s easier on your body to eat a variety of foods regularly than it is to swing from restricted eating to “cheat day”-style eating.
While you’re teaching them balanced eating, it’s important to teach kids skills in the kitchen too. You can let them help you pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try at the grocery story, but only buy one so it doesn’t go to waste if no one likes it. Let them help you stir, sprinkle toppings on homemade pizza, assemble veggie wraps, and chop vegetables when they are old enough to safely handle a knife. Have an open mind and only invite them to come help when you are not in a rush and can handle being slowed down and messes being made. You want to give them a calm environment to learn in. My 3-year-old has been whisking the eggs for frittatas and scrambled eggs since she could hold a whisk. She even cracks the eggs now and does a great job, with the occasional egg on the counter or shell in the bowl, but I do that too sometimes! She feels so proud of herself for helping and I’ve noticed that sometimes she will help me make food that she doesn’t particularly like, and then she is much more curious about trying it because she made it.
Allow kids to call the shots when it comes to what goes in their mouths and how much
One of the most important things for feeding kids healthy, balanced diets without stress is the division of responsibility. The parents do the feeding, the kids are in charge of eating. This means that you get to decide what to serve and when it will be served. The child decides which foods they will put in their mouth and how much they will eat. This is crucial if you want to raise kids who are able to listen to their bodies and honour their hunger and fullness signals with ease. For many adults, a disconnection with their body signals, especially hunger and fullness, is the biggest issue when it comes to feeding themselves in a healthy way.
A structure that is conducive to excited, curious eaters
The absolute main thing you want to cultivate is an environment that allows the natural curiosity of children to come to the table. When children are allowed to be curious, they begin to try all kinds of foods and learn to eat a variety with joy.
Remember that you, the parent or caregiver, decide on the “what” and “when” of feeding your kids. I highly recommend having designated meal and snack times. Kids who graze are never hungry enough to feel curious about the food in front of them. You probably know this for yourself as well. When you’re hungry, food is much more interesting, delicious, and satisfying. Of course, you don’t want them to be starving waiting for their next meal because that adds to mealtime stress. Aim for either a meal or snack every 3 hours or so. To give you an idea, this is my family’s schedule:
This the thing to be strict about when it comes to food. It’s necessary for kids to come to the table hungry yet calm so they have the best opportunity to experience food and get curious about it. If they don’t want to eat at one of those times, remind them that the next time they will get a chance to eat is at the next meal or snack. If you have grazers, it may take some time before they learn that you really mean it when you say that you won’t be doling out snacks in a half hour when they ask for one. This might take a few days or a few weeks, it depends how old your kids are and how much you’ve catered to serving food all day long. Younger kids adapt much more quickly because they’ve had less experience with those habits.
Focus on exposure
The key to raising kids who eat and enjoy a variety of foods is to serve a variety of foods. This may sound obvious to an extent, but many parents subconsciously limit what they offer their kids as time goes on. It usually goes something like this:
It takes a lot of experiences with a new food before we get used to it, and even learn to enjoy it. Continue to serve the foods you want to serve, alongside foods that feel “safe” to your kids. This can look like pizza and salad, or rice with stir fried vegetables, or a veggie frittata with toast on the side. Most kids feel quite safe with “beige” foods (bread, rice, potatoes) because they are relatively bland. It’s more than okay to serve these foods with your meal. In actuality, it’s necessary. Kids need to feel safe and calm at the table in order to allow their curiosity for new foods to come through. Keep the safe foods available and separate from the new foods (you don’t want to put the vegetables on top of the rice, for example).
Releasing the pressure at the table
We often think that our kids will never try new foods or eat their vegetables unless we force them or coax them, when quite the opposite is true. They cannot feel curious if they feel pressured. This may feel very hard for you at first. You might fear that they will only eat bagels and rice if you do this, but be patient. They may just do that for a little while, but as they come to learn that the table is a calm and safe environment, they will get curious. Studies show that kids naturally eat a relatively well-balanced diet if we allow them. They might eat very little one meal, or even for the whole day, and then eat a lot at another meal. They might eat lots of protein-rich foods one day and mostly want fruits and vegetables the next. That’s normal and healthy. It all balances out in the end. So try your best not to coax your kids to eat more or less, or particular foods. They are the ultimate intuitive eaters when there is no pressure at the table.
This can sound like “you don’t have to try it”, “it’s okay if you don’t like salad, you can eat whatever you want from your plate”, and “how does your belly feel?” (instead of micromanaging the amount of food they eat, asking how their belly feels helps them use fullness signals as their cue for how much is the right amount for them at that moment). This reduced pressure is for your wellbeing too! You get to relax and enjoy your food, because once you’ve put food on the table, your job is over. As an added bonus, the more you enjoy your meal, the more curious your child will get about the food and they will be more likely to try it.
Summing it up
All of the above advice might seem totally new to you. Many of us were raised to eat all the food on our plates and eat all our broccoli to earn dessert. The thing is, many of us have strained relationships with food because of this training. Balanced eating and listening to body signals is not easy or natural for many adults. We want our kids to navigate eating with joy and ease. We want them to be well nourished, not deprived or chaotic around food. Sticking with the division of responsibility between feeding and eating, creating structure, focusing on exposure, creating a safe and calm meal environment, and releasing the pressure will allow your child to learn to be a joyful, healthy eater.
Contributed by Melanie Maxwell, R.H.N.