Most young children do not like surprises or new situations. Some, like my own daughter, need time to get used to new environments, activities and food. Having parents repeat something over and over gives the child a sense of security because they know what will happen next in the storyline, song or video. Routines offer the same sense of security to children.
With food and feeding children, some of these same principles apply. Below are some tips to keep in mind when establishing eating habits with your child.
Patience: Much like the book, song or video, children find comfort in eating the same food over and over. Keep this in mind when you are serving something new. When offering a new food or even a new way of serving a familiar food, give your child time to get used to it. Don’t expect him or her to eat it the first time. It may take repeated tries (as many as 15 times or so) for your child to try something different, or new.
Routines: Try to serve meals and snacks at the same time. That is, establish some sort of routine when it comes to meals. Offer or serve the vegetables or salad first, that way if your child is hungry before the actual meal is ready, they can start eating healthy items that are part of the meal and not fill up on snack foods, which often have low nutritional value. Offer milk with the meal for an excellent source of calcium.
Mimicry: Studies have shown that children mimic their parents. If parents aren’t eating fruits and vegetables, it is very likely the child will not want to either. If the parent is averse to trying new foods, the child will likely not be an adventurous eater, and so on. Research has shown that this mimicry extends to grocery shopping patterns as well. When children see parents purchasing healthy foods, they also adopt these patterns later on.
Respect: It is important to respect your child’s hunger and sense of fullness. Having your child “clean their plate” or take five more bites after they have stated they are full, only results in encouraging them to ignore their internal hunger and satiety cues.
Honor: Bribing your child to eat certain foods or threatening to withhold dessert until certain other foods are eaten only results in having your child eat because you said so, not because he or she is honoring her own body’s signals, which are very important in the ability to self regulate their eating.
Inclusion: Include your child in the menu planning process. Provide your children with some parameters and have them suggest three different options. Or provide your children with choices (chicken or fish; spaghetti or raviolis) and have them choose what the family will eat for dinner a couple of times a week. In my family, we plan the next week’s dinner menu on Fridays, so we can grocery shop accordingly on the weekend or use up what we have in the pantry. Each one of us, including our seven-year-old daughter, gets to suggest two menu items for the week.
Involvement: Research shows that when children are involved in the menu planning or meal preparation they tend to want to eat more of what they helped make. Finding age appropriate meal prep work that involves your child will help them feel included. Perhaps your child can stir the tomato sauce you are making, sprinkle the cheese on the homemade pizza, hold the beaters when making mashed potatoes, or press the button on the blender when making smoothies. Involve your child in grocery shopping and encourage him or her to help you select the produce.
Have fun: Children learn by playing and having fun, and the same is true with eating. When possible, insert some fun into your meals. Cut sandwiches or pizza into shapes using cookie cutters. At my home, on the weekends, I make whole-wheat pancakes in the shape of letters. We spell our names or make up words with random letters and use strawberries and bananas to make faces out of round pancakes. It is amazing how much more my daughter will eat on those days!
Ellyn Satter, a recognized authority in child nutrition and feeding shares in her book, Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, that for success in feeding children and encouraging healthy eating, the following must take place:
- Love good food, trust yourself and share that love and trust with your children
- Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding.
- Children are responsible for the how much and the whether of feeding.
- Do your job as a parent, let your children do theirs and settle down.