All we really want as parents is to have a happy and healthy child. Sometimes, the innate desire to achieve these things actually creates the opposite effect. This is particularly true when it comes to food and our desire to ensure our child is eating enough and getting the necessary nutrition they need. The important thing to remember is that the feeding journey is not just the what and how much our children eat, but establishing a positive attitude towards food. After-all this relationship with food will be life-long.
As the owner of Tummy Thyme, a healthy baby and toddler food company based in Los Angeles, I spend a considerable amount of time chatting with parent groups about the issues many parents face when feeding a toddler. In every class, I hear a similar story; “my child used to eat everything and now will only eat mac n’ cheese”. Parents share their concern about meal-time power struggles, picky eating behavior and often failed strategies they use to get their child to eat.
It is hard for parents to have perspective when you are locked in a cycle of meal-time chaos. But if we can take a step back and look at what actually causes the picky eating, then it can help make positive changes that will benefit not only the child but the family as a whole.
Picky or selective eating is not only normal but in fact developmentally appropriate. It is believed to be a survival strategy, to avoid a newly-mobile child ingesting an unsafe food (think poisonous berries on a tree). It also coincides with a slowing growth rate (around 2 years of age), when a child doesn’t need to eat as much as they did during fast growing infancy. This apprehension to eat unfamiliar foods and the reduction in quantity of consumption, often gets interpreted by parents as picky eating.
What is interesting is that this period of selective eating only lasts as long and is as challenging as a parent’s response to it. Simply put, the more parents ‘try’ to get their child to eat, the less their child actually seems to eat. And the more concerned the parent is about the picky eating the worse it seems to get. It is often the strategy parents choose, that fuels the power struggle around food.
A common example is short-order cooking. This happens when the child refuses to eat what is on his/her plate, so the parent ends up cooking comfort food like mac n’ cheese an hour after dinner time. Many parents can’t ‘stomach’ the irrational fear that their child will go to bed hungry.
So what can parents do during this (hopefully fleeting) picky eating stage, without reinforcing bad habits?
1. Trust your child
When a breast-fed baby was months old, it would signal signs of hunger and then breastfeed until it was full. The mother would have no real sense of how much their baby consumed at any given meal. This should be no different for an older child. So why do we question our solids-eating toddler to make the same decisions about monitoring the signs their body is giving them?
2. Take the pressure off
Nothing positive comes from pressure, particularly when it comes to eating. And nobody likes to be force-fed. Respect your child’s decision about whether they eat and how much they eat. By pressuring your child to “eat just one more bite” you are effectively asking them to ignore their mind-body connection which is regulating their sensations of hunger and fullness. We want children to eat because they are hungry, not to please their parent.
3. Stay in your lane
Harriett Worobey, Childhood Nutrition Instructor says, “I think parents feel like it’s their job to just make their children eat something, but it’s really their job to serve a variety of healthy foods and get their children exposed to foods.”
Wait, what?! It’s not our job to get our child to eat something?!
The responsibility about whether and how much your child eats, is your child’s decision alone. All you need to do is continue to offer a variety of healthy, delicious foods that you also enjoy at meal-time. The eating part is up to them. We want to look at intake over the course of a week not day-to-day. We have to factor in things like teething, growth spurts etc. Your child shouldn’t be responsible for choosing the foods offered at meal-time (they have less nutrition knowledge than you) and you should avoid telling your child how much to eat (you can’t monitor their sense of hunger or fullness).
4. Offer a variety of healthy foods
Research shows that food and beverage preferences are set in the first few years of life. So give your child a taste for things that are good for them. Here is a sensible list to consider:
- Choose fresh and organic where possible (this is the simplest way to reduce exposure to foods which contain harmful toxins and pesticides)
- Avoid foods with added sugar or a sugar derivative (a good guide is if sugar appears in the first 3-4 ingredients it has too much sugar for a toddler age child)
- Limit fried foods and foods that have a high salt content
- Offer a variety of foods to encourage an adventurous eater (but with no pressure to actually eat the food). And remember, research shows that it can take 15+ times (or even years) for a child to accept a new food. So keep offering rejected items, one day your child will surprise you and take a bite!
The ultimate goal is for our children to love food, have a positive relationship with eating and for family meal-times to be enjoyable for all. Put perfectly “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers”, Ellyn Satter Institute.
*Talia Moore is an LA-based doula, childbirth educator and co-founder of Tummy Thyme, a manufacturer and distributor of healthy and organic food for babies and toddlers.