Kids are amazing eaters. I don’t know if you have ever watched a toddler eat, but it has instinct written all over it. Kids don’t think about what they should be eating. They just eat what’s put in front of them, and if they don’t like it, they don’t eat it. They aren’t worried about wasting food or offending the cook. They just eat.
I think I’m speaking for most adults when I say that at some point in our lives, we learned to ignore our body’s innate ability to control our food intake. Our parents, grandparents, or teachers created rules for us like “clean your plate” or “no dessert until you’ve eaten all of your vegetables”. They used food as a reward or punishment for how we behaved that day. Those things that we learned at a very young age, stuck with us, and for some of us, are the very source of our struggles with food today. Unfortunately, these rules instill a lifelong battle with an unhealthy relationship with food.
Parents, it’s YOUR job to determine what, when, and where your children eat, but it’s THEIR job to determine what they like and how much they eat.
Here are five tips for growing graceful eaters:
1) Model healthy eating by preparing balanced meals.
Try to avoid offering kids one item at meals by including foods from at least three food groups. For example, if you serve macaroni and cheese, make sure you also give a fruit and vegetable with it. They may not choose to eat the fruit and/or vegetable, but if you don’t offer it, they won’t have the chance to. Along with balance, make sure that you are not always giving them “kid-friendly” foods. It’s okay for a toddler to learn to eat chicken off of the bone and not in the form of a nugget.
2) Never force them to clean their plate.
If someone told you that you had to eat all of the food in front of you when you were already full, how would that make you feel? It’s unnatural. It teaches us to ignore our body’s fullness signals, which can often lead to a life of overeating and weight gain. If your child says that they are full, honor it. The same goes for hunger. If they are hungry, allow them to eat.
3) Don’t make them eat things that they don’t like.
Everyone has different tastes and likes different things. I’ve seen my own kids’ tastes change over the years. Things that my son used to eat like tomatoes, he doesn’t like anymore. And I’m okay with that. If I make something new or something he has never tried, I always ask him to taste it. Sometimes he likes it and will eat it, and other times he doesn’t. If I were to force him to eat something that he didn’t like, it would probably great a stronger aversion to that food making him less willing to try it again in the future. You can continue to offer disliked foods to your kids without forcing them to eat them.
4) Don’t feed pickiness.
This is a tough one. Like I mentioned above, we all have different taste preferences; however, enabling pickiness will only make the problem worse. It’s important for your kids to be exposed to a large variety of foods, tastes, and textures. If you only prepare for them the things that they especially like, then they will always expect that. Don’t make a separate meal for them just because they don’t like what is being served. They can learn to choose from the options provided at that meal.
5) Don’t use food as a reward or punishment.
I think we are all guilty of this in some way. Ice cream tends to be the go-to bribe or reward for good behavior. However, if kids grow up thinking that every time something good happens, they can celebrate with food, they will learn to feed their emotions with food. Instead, let food be fuel and use non-food objects or experiences to reward your children. In regards to punishment, withholding food from your children when they are hungry could create an unwanted eating disorder. When food is restricted in anyway, it usually results in binge eating behavior at some point. You may find your kids hiding or sneaking food because they have learned that it is not always available for them. The purpose of food is to nourish those growing bodies, not punish them.
So many of my clients have issues with food that stem from their childhood. If you are a parent or an authority figure in a child’s life, you have the opportunity to teach kids to have a healthy relationship with food, reducing their risk of a life filled with food rules, emotional eating, and weight issues. Stop the unnecessary rules and allow them to eat with grace.