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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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!
Great news, Rebecca! Thanks for sharing.
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?
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.
I offered my child milk at bedtime, after an evening meal which varied from 4.30-5.30pm depending on his hunger. Bedtime was 7pm when younger then 7.30pm. This avoided the need to offer food to a tired child. He knew he had to do his teeth after his milk, then get into bed.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
Ok ok you convinced me. No more “just a few more bites” and “here comes the airplane” trick 🙂
What do you recommend when your 2 or 4 year olds refuses to eat multiple meals and snacks (the 4 year old will not snack but the 2 year old will) to the point where 3 or 4 days go by and they’ve eaten less than what you can fit in the palm of your hand? Everything else is normal and no medical issues or concerns. They are both very picky and will not try any new foods, whatsoever. They each have probably 5-10 items that they will eat. I’m concerned that they’re not eating as it affects not only nutrition but their moods. You say it’s fine for a child to miss a meal or two and then they’ll start eating, but what if they don’t start eating any meals and go days without eating more than a few bites here or there?
Hi Janet, thanks for addressing this topic. My 14 month old used to let me out her in her high chair for meals, but now starts to cry and resists getting in the chair and instead wants to eat sitting in my lap. Then she tries to put her feet up on the table, which I’ve tried to discourage. She will eat in her high chair at her grandmother’s (it’s the exact same model chair) where she goes during the day while we’re at work, she just won’t eat in the high chair at home. I’m unsure if this is a battle worth fighting because I want her to enjoy eating but I also want to model a respectful eating environment. Would love to hear your thoughts!
I always ask my wife to take my son to give him milk with egg before sleeping. I also said her to give him dinner 3 hours before he sleeping, my son normally goes to bed at 8 pm. But I always request my wife to give him fresh filtered water.
We offer a meal or a snack every 2 hours, with no snacking in-between. If left to her own devices my Daughter (2.5yr) won’t stop to eat, at all, all day. She is too busy and will go and go until she melts down from hunger. She will melt down for an hour, until the next meal time and then be inconsolable and too upset to eat then too. If I sit with her on my lap and convince her to try one bite, she often will eat the rest of the meal willingly and stop when she is full. She then plays calmly and often independently the rest of the afternoon. But that first bite seams to take tears and a ton of “HANGRY”. We try to explain “Hangry” and listing to your body. Knowing when to feed your body so you have the energy to do the things you want to do. We are at our wits ends really.
I am wondering if you have any resources to recommend around this issue, when there ARE serious underlying health concerns around getting enough to eat. We’ve tried to model exactly what you suggest and overall, my 4yo is an adventurous eater who listens to her body, etc. However, it is essential that she gets enough to eat or it is life threatening. Do you have an resources on navigating this?
Hi! I would still focus on trust in your daughter to tune in to her body. If supplemental nutrition is needed in the form of pills, drinks or food, I would approach that as I would medicine. This post explains more about that: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2016/02/the-secret-to-helping-kids-take-medicine-without-a-spoonful-of-sugar/
Hi Janet, my one year old barely eats solids. When we first started introducing purées he tried and ate everything, once he started teething this ended and I didn’t think anything of it. He still ate fresh foods such as yoghurt and fruit. He might try a few bites and then just plays with his food. He skips entire meals sometimes, not eating anything at all! I try to keep it light, we eat along with him, tell him what it all is and then just chat about the day without focusing too much on the food itself. I am, however getting worried that he barely eats solids (I do still breastfeed) at 1 year old. The pediatrician said that his growth is stagnating and everyone mentions that he doesn’t eat well.. I want to keep mealtime positive and I want him to enjoy healthy meals. Really in need of some advice! I feel like trusting that all will be well might not be enough anymore, this has been going on for months now. Maybe he can feel my worry, even though I try to not make a big deal out of eating.
Hi Rebecca – It can take time for children to accept new food textures. I would consult with your doctor about maybe fortifying the yoghurts, etc. The only part of this I can help with is understanding our power and how our feelings affect our children. Some children are more sensitive than others, but most can easily sense their parents discomfort and worry. Also, are you paying full (and, ideally, very calm and accepting) attention to him during mealtimes? That is a big part of the approach I teach and quite different from the recommendations of groups like “Baby Led Weaning.” With Magda Gerber’s approach, feedings are 100% attentive, quality time, so that we can be there to support and not distract. Some children are easily distracted by adult conversation. But, most of all, by our uncomfortable emotions. I hope that helps.
There’s a technique called paced bottle feeding that helps babies who are fed with a bottle not to over eat. Many videos online to see!
Your posts on eating say it’s okay if your child skips “a meal or two.” I tried this relaxed approach of just offering food and letting my child decide from the start… But now he’s four and he almost never eats dinner. He went probably a year only eating breakfast and lunch, and refusing dinner 5 or 6 days a week. I’ve imposed some rules just to get him to try new foods, as otherwise he just waits for his morning oatmeal. I hate the stress this adds to meals, but it doesn’t seem okay that he rarely eats dinner and refuses most new foods.
Why do you think he skips dinner? Often it’s tiredness or they’ve had a late snack or just aren’t hungry at that time. I personally don’t believe it’s helpful to make eating certain foods a rule.
We follow this at home, but my partner is getting concerned because often my son will only eat the safe food, which some times might be air fried French fries or a couple pieces of fruit. I’m comfortable letting this go, what we’re doing is working on exposure to all our foods, so eventually he will try it (I think). He’s not unhealthy but my partner is putting a lot of pressure on me to change how we approach his dinners. Should we just never have ”unhealthier” foods?
The best way to encourage your child to pass through this phase is to trust him to and allow him to on his own, in my opinion.