Every parent experiences feeding their little ones in a different way. Things like cultural perspectives, a child’s growth, and typical family food choices are just a couple of the factors that go into how a parent experiences feeding their child. Of course, Sally next door doesn’t help when she comments on how your child eats or a grandparent decides to have their say. Let’s just agree that every single parent wants to feed their child well and to the best of their ability.
While we know that encouraging children to eat a variety of foods can be challenging, there are choices we can make as parents to slowly and steadily encourage healthy eating habits. Setting up a positive eating environment opens the doors to promoting healthful food choices without the fight.
Division of Responsibility
The Ellyn Satter Institute offers evidenced based resources for establishing a positive eating environment that encourages kids to eat well. Her website and books are extremely helpful. A few big take home points are:
- As parents, we have a few jobs: to offer our kids a variety of healthy foods at regular times throughout the day and in places that signify eating time (in a high chair or at the dinner table).
- Kids have an important job: what to eat and how much of it to eat.
When we as parents do our job, kids have more opportunity to do their job well. We can further encourage kids by offering positive reinforcement. When your child tries a new food for the first time, you might say “Way to go! You are a good taster!” Behaviors that encourage eating such as self-feeding, sitting nicely in their seat, and trying new foods are all worthy of positive re-enforcement. Steer clear of battles and force feeding as these can derail any improvements that have been made. When meal time can be a positive place to experience food, the whole family benefits.
Where Attention Goes Energy Flows
Differential attention is a theory that uses the adult’s attention to teach children positive behaviors, eating and beyond. Young children seek attention and do not yet have the skills to determine attention as good or bad. If they receive negative attention, they may continue to seek that attention since it is still, after all, attention. This theory at work in real life might look like this:
- You are sitting at dinner with a toddler who is playing with their bib and banging their spoon on the table
- Ignore the behavior by turning your gaze away or speaking to another person at the table (of course, assuming that nothing dangerous is happening).
- Once the child stops using his spoon as a drum stick and starts taking bites of food, return your attention to the child by looking them in the eyes and chatting with them.
If done consistently, the child learns that positive behaviors receive attention.
Make Tasting a Game
In the evidence-based approach called “Tiny Tastes”, a child is repeatedly exposed to a variety of foods (especially typically disliked foods such as vegetables). It is like a game where the parent and child are both offered tiny bites. First, the parent takes a bite and offers something they liked about it. Then the child takes a tiny bite. The child understands that if the food is disliked, it can be spit out.
This approach can be used at any meal time with the foods being offered to the family. It can also help to have several foods offered that may not be a favorite and the child can choose which one to taste. We know it can take 10-15 exposures to a food for it to become familiar enough to be accepted. All the more reason to regularly offer foods regardless of whether or not they are “liked”.
Teaching healthy and wholesome eating habits is not accomplished overnight. Looking at the long game is key! By starting with a positive eating environment, food likes can be worked out over time.