Here are some tips to help you with feeding your child. These are definitely not the only tips for feeding kids, but I think they are some of the most important ones. I've come up with these tips through my training as a dietitian, helping clients with feeding their children, reading Ellyn Satter's books, and my experience feeding my own kids. For more information I would definitely recommend any of Ellyn Satter's books.
1. Sit down with your kids to eat (otherwise known as family meals).
This doesn’t need to be a big ordeal. “Family meals” can sound intimidating to some people, but it doesn’t need to be crazy formal for it to work. Your child just wants to talk to you, listen to you, and connect with you while eating. Food is about connection. Let your children see that your relationship with them and your relationship with food is worth your time. Grab some food - homemade meal, something from the freezer, take out, restaurant - sit down by each other, and EAT! Oh, and don't forget to eliminate distractions like phones, TVs, work, etc.
2. Follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility.
The division of responsibility is:
Parents are in charge of the WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN
Children are in charge of the WHETHER and HOW MUCH
Parents pick the food to serve, where everyone will eat, and what time they will eat. The children are responsible for deciding if they will eat the food and how much of the food they will eat. The division of responsibility is crucial! Your child is in charge of listening to his body and connecting to his hunger and fullness cues. Your child is in charge of learning whether or not he likes or dislikes different foods.
Once you try to make your child eat something, you are taking away your child’s feeding responsibility, and it usually backfires. I’ve tried to make my three-year-old daughter eat something twice in her life, and both times she has ended up throwing a fit and refusing to eat it. Don't take over your child's responsibility with eating (by forcing your child to eat) because he needs to be in charge of listening to his body.
3. Set structure (preferably 3 meals and 3 snacks).
Your child needs structure in order to feel secure with feeding and eating. Set general meal and snack times (these don’t need to be super ridged, but have a plan in mind). Don't feed your child in between meals and snacks. If your child is hungry between snack and lunch time, let her know that lunch is at 12:00 (or whenever) and she can eat then. Giving your child a set structure of meals and snacks will ensure that your child eats enough, without grazing through the whole day. Structure also helps kids feel secure about food because they know they will be fed throughout the day. Kids who aren't fed regularly tend to eat more when they are fed because they are unsure of when they will be able to eat again.
4. Have easy meal and snack ideas.
It’s tough feeding kids! But you don’t need to cook for hours every day to feed your child. Get simple ingredients you can throw together. Get frozen meals. Order take out. Go out to eat. If you put too much pressure on yourself to cook gourmet meals every day, you may fizzle out. Be realistic with your life and schedule. Be realistic with your cooking abilities or your desire to cook. Do what works for you.
5. Let kids try new foods and keep offering foods they don’t prefer.
Kids are so fickle! One day they like something and the next day they won’t touch it. But your child's eating will even out over time and he will get all the nutrition he needs. Don't worry if your son only eats fruit one day and only bread the next day. Kids need to experiment with food. Keep offering your normal variety of foods and incorporate new foods and recipes that sound good to you. Your child will benefit from being exposed to many different foods, even if they don't eat all of them. Remember, it can take at least 10-20 exposures of food for your child to eat a food. Keep exposing your child to different foods even if it seems like your child will only ever eat three things. It just takes time!
6. Always offer your child at least one thing they are familiar with at meals.
Keep offering your child new foods, but always have something he knows and likes. You don’t want to give your child three things he doesn’t like for dinner and have him leave hungry. At least put one food item on the table he knows. I usually have a carbohydrate on the table that I know my kids will eat (like bread, rice, tortilla chips, pasta). That way I know they will at least eat something if they don't prefer the other foods on the table.
7. Make food fun and delicious.
Food can be a great way to bond with your child. Let your child help you in the kitchen with small tasks. Make food “kid friendly” and exciting. You don't have to go crazy with this, but maybe drawing a smiley face with the ranch dressing on your child's plate will make her more excited to eat her carrots.
8. Let kids have dessert – at snacks and meals.
This one seems very foreign to most people. Dessert at meals?!?!?! But having dessert with your lunch or dinner will make dessert normal, and not something to be “earned” if your child eats a good dinner. When desserts are included in a meal, they are no better or worse than the other food on the table. Desserts become what they are – just food. Put one serving of dessert per person on the table and allow your child to eat her serving. You don’t need to do this every meal, but doing it often enough will allow your child to see that dessert can be enjoyed instead of idealized.
Also, make sure you offer desserts and sweet items at snacks as well. Allow your child to eat as much as she wants during the snack time. This sounds scary and counterintuitive, but it will normalize sweet food items. Normalizing sweets at home will decrease the chance that your child will overeat, eat in secret, hide food, feel guilty for eating, and a host of other disordered eating behaviors.
9. Only talk positive about food and bodies.
Your kids never need to hear negative body comments – about their body or your body. You can struggle with negative body image thoughts without translating that to your kids. Positive body comments or no comments.
The same goes for food. No talk about good or bad foods. The best way to show kids how to eat is to model it yourself. Let your child see you eating all different foods, without judgement or guilt. And don't ever put your child on a diet!
10. Trust your child.
Your child was born with this amazing ability to regulate her eating. We all start out knowing what our body needs and how much our body needs. It’s when we start hearing messages like, “eat everything on your plate”, and “we don’t eat sweets in our house” that our intuitive system is hijacked. It may be scary to let your children be in charge of whether they eat and how much they eat. But try it out. See what happens. Let go of that fear and trust your child. You will set your child up to have a successful and positive relationship with food.