Feeding kids is hard.
Some don’t like what you cook, some complain about what they’re served, sometimes you worry about how much or how little they eat. Kids also seem to always want a snack but never want dinner or always want candy but never want vegetables.
But what if I told you that with more trust and some boundaries, feeding kids could actually be peaceful and fun?
Some adolescent and adult disordered eating, weight obsession and food fear can be traced back to early childhood eating experiences. Some parents are either micromanaging their kids’ food intake or totally ignoring it, perhaps wavering between both on some occasions. If a child is seemingly uninterested in eating or overly fixated on food, the problem isn’t with them or the parent, it might be in the approach.
If kids are picky eaters, there may be either too little or too much support. If kids are preoccupied with food, they may be deprived of adequate variety and flexibility. If kids show no interest in food, they may be tired of being forced to eat. If they turn meals into power struggles, they may feel helpless.
Negative experiences with food may cause extreme behaviors — for anyone of any age.
But here’s the good news: the solution is actually pretty simple. It’s a matter of knowing what your job is and what your kids’ jobs are in the feeding relationship.
Parents’ feeding jobs:
- Choose and prepare the food.
- Provide regular meals and snacks at times that you choose.
- Decide where those meals and snacks are eaten.
- Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
- Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
Children’s eating jobs:
- Choose what to eat from what is served.
- Decide whether to eat when meals and snacks are served, based on their level of hunger or fullness.
- Eat the amounts they need to meet their needs.
Putting pressure on children to do their job a certain way is what may create issues. It’s important for you to refrain from micromanaging what and how much they eat at each meal and snack (from what you’ve decided to serve, with input from them to know their food preferences).
As difficult as it may be, your kids need more trust and freedom to do their job well. That’s going to be a lot easier to do if you allow yourself the same with your own eating. These shifts in how you feed your kids will ignite their natural inclinations for confident eating. Instead of power struggles, you can work with your kids to create peaceful meal times.
At the heart of feeding concerns is the misunderstanding, or lack of belief, that kids can effectively self-moderate their food choices. Children can naturally create nutritionally adequate food patterns and eat the amounts they need in order to grow, as long as they aren’t pressured into it.
If the thought of releasing control of your children’s eating makes you nervous, remember the goal. The goal isn’t to raise super healthy eaters, it’s to raise competent and confident eaters that know how to self-moderate.
Your kids will grow up and leave your house one day. Trying to force them to eat how you want them to right now is short-sighted. Instead, keep perspective on raising confident eaters who can feed themselves well and respect their bodies.
Here are 3 helpful tips to get you started:
Avoid labeling foods
Refrain from labeling food as “good” or “bad” or even “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Kids are very literal, black and white thinkers. If you label a food they like, are eating or want to eat, they may think of themselves as equivalent to that label. It only reinforces and encourages inflexible thinking patterns as their little brains develop and those patterns are hard to unlearn.
Respecting intuitive signals of hunger, fullness and appetite come very naturally to kids. However, if they feel like their body is wrong, they may lack trust for what their body is communicating to them. To help them do what they are already naturally good at, avoid making them feel like they need to manipulate their body to make it a certain size, shape or weight. Do this by celebrating and teaching body diversity. We all come in different shapes and sizes. We are unique and different in many ways, and that’s a good thing.
Their best teacher is you
Kids will do what you do. Their best example for how to eat with confidence and respect their body will come from you. Take some time to think about how you talk about food and your body and evaluate if that’s truly the message you want to be sending. No parent is perfect, nor do they need to be, but you can have a positive impact on your kids by being open to learning and growing in your own food and body confidence.