Do you have picky eaters? I’m not just asking the mothers of young children here. Even adolescents can be picky eaters. Or rather, stubborn eaters. Children can easily get set in their ways, so to speak, and reluctant to branch out in their food choices. For many parents, this can be the number one area of stress in their family. As the mother of two young boys myself, I know that dictating the family diet is no easy task! And the longer your children persist in their eating habits, the harder and harder it is to change them. Am I speaking to the choir?
But let me say as a means of empowerment, there are things you can do at each stage of development to foster better eating habits in your kids. No matter what age they are, I would argue there are some tips and techniques you can employ to improve the nutrition in your household. It’s hard work, but it’s doable.
First step? You as parents first need to understand what your goals are for your family. What problems do you see going on? Too much fast food? Refusal to eat vegetables? Will only eat their 3 favorite foods? Figure out what you want to fix and write it down. This can reduce frustration when trying to pinpoint what behavior is bothering you and also enable you to praise the good habits when you see them.
You also need to uncover the knowledge gaps you have around shopping for and preparing healthy meals. Yes you may know the problems, but do you even know what you would do to fix it? This is where a preliminary visit with a Registered Dietitian can come in handy just to get an idea of what a healthy diet for your family might look like. You can also do some reading or ask other families what they do for meals and snacks. Educate yourself.
Now that you are educated and know what you want to change, the prescription will depend on the age of your child. Let’s go through three different phases and three different strategies.
Babies (6-18 month)
Sorry moms and dads, this phase is all about YOU. You are the sole decider in what this child eats. Educate yourself on what foods you want your kids eating and offer it! Simple as that. This might mean you need to spend some time prepping (cutting up veggies, making finger foods, whipping up a few dips, etc). Yes, it can be time consuming. But getting your kid to eat a variety of foods at this stage is often not difficult as long as you offer it. This is also where you need to remember not to let advertisements tell you what your kids should be eating. No, they don’t need “toddler formula” after the age of 1 for extra nutrition, nor do they need squeezy fruit packets or dried munchies powdered with “vegetables.” Just focus on real food but in consistencies and quantities appropriate for their age. If you start with that now, often your job will be much easier later on.
Toddler (18mo -3ish)
This phase can be a bit more tough. Maybe you have heard of the terrible 2’s? Well, anytime in this period kids can become a lot more stubborn and put up a fight with just about everything, including food. This is where Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility comes in super handy. Have you heard of this? Definitely a web site to check out if you have any feeding struggles: http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/. This can be life changing, let me just say. The basic premise is this. You are responsible for WHAT your child eats. They are responsible for HOW MUCH and WHETHER. Simple enough? What is means is that you hold to power to what they eat. Don’t let those little tyrants tell you otherwise! I have to remind myself of this ALL the time. I decide what is on the plate. They can choose not to eat it, but I do not provide back up options.
Won’t they starve, you ask? Pretty sure they won’t. While it seems true that toddlers live on air, they do get all the calories they need (unless there is some sort of eating disorder, in which case you should see a specialist for guidance). Our words of advice when working in WIC was always this: don’t judge your kid’s intake on just one day. Look over the entire week and likely you will see they get in everything they need. Kids often eat in spurts. Let them eat and grow naturally and you will have less worry and less fighting. But DO decide what to put on their plate. That is your number one feeding job.
School age kids (4ish – adolescence)
Here we are talking about kids that are much more independent and have an opinion on things, including food. Opinions are ok. Don’t discourage it. But this is a time where you need to have more open discussion around food choices and make some compromises where needed. The division of responsibility still holds. You may not have as much control over exactly what they eat anymore, but you certainly do decided what foods are in the house and therefore available as options.
As I said, this stage requires more direct discussion and education. So many kids end up in high school and beyond without a solid grasp of what healthy eating means and why it is even important. I know this was true for myself. I went off to college with no idea how to cook and no real understanding of the purpose of healthy eating to begin with. I remember there was one day where I ate nothing but candy. Believe it, it’s true. Sure I felt gross, but I clearly did not understand why that was such a poor choice. Don’t overestimate your child’s understanding of nutrition. Educate them early and often (but don’t be overbearing!).
In fact, these are great ages to bring your child to a Dietitian if you have worries about their eating. Sometimes having them hear it from someone other than their parent can be very impactful. For example, I see adolescents frequently in my practice. We talk about the very basics of nutrition, why it is important, and simple ways they can improve what they eat. It not only teaches them how to eat healthy but empowers them to make those choices for themselves. The hardest thing for a parent sometimes is not to pester your kids into making better decisions, so utilize the help of a Dietitian trained to work with children if needed. Again, just another way to reduce stress and fighting while improving their dietary habits.
Other tips for these ages are to include them in the grocery shopping and meal prep. Have them make their own lunches (under your supervision, of course) and even give them the task of meal planning (for the older ones). The more they are involved in the day to day of healthy eating, the more likely it is they will care and adhere (and the less work for you, bonus!).
So these are just a few tips and techniques you can employ to help get your family on a healthier path. A lot of it comes directly down to you as parents. Don’t forget the number one rule: YOU decide what they eat (or what foods are in the house). Everything else flows from there. If barriers stand in the way, seek help from a professional for guidance.