Giving Children the Gift of Healthy Eating

The old adage “We are what we eat” is true, but we are also the way that we eat. This distinction is particularly important when teaching kids how to eat balanced meals. The manner in which we present and handle mealtimes with our children is more vital to fostering healthy eating than the food itself.
But this post isn’t about the art of food presentation and colorful garnishes (a hilarious thought, really, considering my lack of talent in the kitchen). Instead, I’ve collected some simple suggestions for instilling healthy habits and a positive, mindful approach to eating.

Tummy Wisdom

We’re born with the ability to listen to our tummies, and the key to healthy eating is to keep doing that.  Our job as parents is to ensure that this important message doesn’t get obstructed by extraneous issues like our worries that children aren’t going to eat enough (or at all) without our nudging.

Trust in our children is the key to almost every aspect of parenting, but it’s especially essential at mealtime. Since children take their cues from us, our calm, trusting attitude will keep this channel between our child’s mind and tummy clear.  Present a few healthy options, let go, let your children do the rest, and they will be able to stay in tune with their physical needs for food.

The one thing that the many parents who contact me about food issues have in common – they are acting out of worry rather than trust.

When They’re Done, They’re Done

Remove “clean your plate” from your vocabulary. Don’t coax “just one more bite” or “here comes the airplane!”  Take the safest, most child-centered route by offering small portions and allowing your child to ask for more.

Breasts and Bottles

In the early months we must trust babies to communicate their needs and do our best to tune in and understand. Studies show that it is easier not to overfeed breastfed babies, because they have to suckle to get more milk, and they’ll usually stop as soon as they’re satiated. Bottle feeding requires even more attunement. The safest bet is to pay close attention and not give babies a drop more than they seem to “request.” Never try to overfill babies so that they’ll last longer between feedings.

When introducing solids to babies, be mindful of being responsive, never directive. Always let the child lead. She knows her tummy, you don’t. Even pre-verbal children will let us know when they are hungry and when they’ve had enough — if we make it easy for them. Assure children that you want that information.

Let your child out of her highchair as soon as you receive the slightest signal that she is done. (Consider using a small table and chair or stool to give a toddler more autonomy.)

Toddlers are often picky eaters. Some children remain that way. Even if your child eats next to nothing for a meal or two, trust him. When we panic, problems can begin.

Encourage Attentiveness

Infant specialist Magda Gerber recommended feeding infants on our lap to encourage attunement, attentiveness and intimacy. For the first few years at least, insist that children sit while they eat, whether you are at home, a friend’s house, the park, or anywhere else. This is a simple boundary that children as young as 9 or 10 months can understand and accept as long as you are consistent. Sitting is good manners, it’s safer than playing with food in your mouth, and it encourages focus on eating.

Don’t show TV and videos to get children to eat. This, again, stems from worrying rather than trusting, and it creates the habit of not paying attention to food and his or her own tummy wisdom.

Be attentive to children whenever they eat so that they can stay focused, relaxed and refueled by both the food and your connection. This is the best way to enable continued “tummy listening” and will pave the way for togetherness at mealtimes for years to come.

Eryn shared her experience:

Just finished lunch with my two-year-old and wanted to say a big THANK YOU for the encouragement to make meals a time of connecting, with zero distractions or agenda about what gets eaten, firm boundaries around leaving the table, throwing food, etc. Carving out the time to eat together this way is easier said than done, but the effect is that mealtimes are going to be some of my favorite memories of this age with my son!

For more, you might wish to check out the “feeding” and “mealtimes” sections here on my website.

I also recommend the book: French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon.

Thank you, Eryn, for sharing your story and photo!

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on eHow)

10 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I’d love to get your input on Ellyn Satter and her “division of responsibility.” I’m a huge fan and feel that it aligns nicely with RIE, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

    1. Thanks, Grace. I have thoroughly researched Ellyn Satter’s recommendations, but what I’ve seen does sound aligned with Magda Gerber’s teachings, and I appreciate the simplicity of her explanations. I’m glad Satter’s work has been helpful to you.

  2. We have followed your advice very closely since day one and couldn’t be happier! Never had to coax. Throwing food happened maybe once. We are now at 27 months and family dinners are so relaxed. My son takes his time to eat and let’s us know when he’s done. Sometimes we even finish our dinner before him!

  3. My almost 1 year old eats anything and everything we give her but when she notices the food is almost gone she screams. I don’t think she’s truly still hungry because sometimes she’s eating the same portion as me, also after I clear the dishes, she stops screaming. I respond with something like, I hear you’re upset that your foods all gone but you’ll get to eat again later. She is still in a high chair because she doesn’t get herself into a sitting position otherwise I would try a weaning chair and table. Any other thoughts?

  4. I do try to implement this method as much as I can, but for example by bedtime when both my children ( 2 and 4) are very tired, I have agreed that I will feed them because it is a lot less stressful for all of us (and as a result, my personal boundaries are not pushed). So how do I reconcile these 2 things ie. respecting your own personal boundaries, and encouraging the independence etc? I know that if I just leave them to it, they may not eat anything and just go to bed crying because they are hungry. And when I feed them, I do try to make sure they are not oblivious of what they are eating – no screens or anything like that, and always check whether they have had enough etc. Thank you.

  5. avatar Kari Kittinger says:

    Love this post. I do have a question. I do not force meals on my son (2) but I do tend to leave his plate for him to snack on. Sometimes he will eat and sometimes he will not. I encourage him to listen to his body and communicate with me when he’s hungry. However, we are struggling with him always wanting food at bedtime. I resist and tell him we already had dinner. He will fall asleep but then wake up several times during the night saying he is hungry and asking for food. I find myself trying to get him to eat more at dinner time to avoid being hungry in the middle of the night. What do you recommend when this happenes?

    1. Thanks, Kari. I”m wondering why you leave meals for your son to snack on. I would stop doing that and, instead, be clear that mealtimes are when food will be offered and that you’re fine with him eating however much or little he needs at those times. It sounds like this is unclear to him and he’s testing you.

      1. avatar Kari Kittinger says:

        Thanks, Janet. I am going to try taking his plate away when he’s finished and see what happens! He’s a tester in every way so this is a good boundary I need to make clear. Thank you for encouraging us.

        I do feel badly not giving him food when he says he’s hungry at night but I’m guessing he’ll learn that he needs to eat when it’s meal time.

        Happy New Year!

  6. avatar Nancy Shelton says:

    As a registered dietitian who works with the parents of young children I would like to suggest Melanie Potock’s books, “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater” and “Baby Self-Feeding.”
    She has a Facebook page called My Munch Bug. Her advice is spot on and much in alignment with your respectful parenting approach.

  7. We are just now tackling this issue with our infant. The tip about feeding him while sitting in my lap is brilliant. I’ll have to try this and see if it helps with this feeding routine.

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