For me, childhood nutrition is really about two things: First and foremost, we want to provide complete nutrition, every gram of fat and protein and carbohydrate and vitamin and mineral needed for our little ones to thrive, every day of their childhood. Daily growth and development depend on this. Moms and dads know this and it is the concern that makes us panic about vegetables not being eaten, sneak beetroot into chocolate cake and phone up dietitians for emergency advice. But there is a second, often forgotten priority: Infancy and childhood is a time for our children to learn how to eat: How to enjoy fruits and vegetables every day, how to moderate their intake of treats, how to listen to their bodies when they are hungry, how to listen to their bodies when they are full. These skills will accompany them for the rest of their lives and keep them healthy well after their last school lunchbox. This is the long term goal, the marathon of childhood nutrition. And often, when we are so busy worrying about the first goal, we neglect to help our children develop a calm, balanced, healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
Putting pressure on kiddo to eat at the dinner table (“just three more bites”, “no dessert until your broccoli is finished”) is a tempting trap, but research shows us time and again that it just isn’t a good idea. It leads to children eating less food, being more fussy about what they eat, and lower body weight. Pressure to eat healthier foods actually reduces intake of fruits and vegetables, and the effect can last for years – many young adults report that they still don’t eat the vegetables they were pressured to eat as a child. Not ideal for long term health! It’s a vicious cycle: Slight fussy eating quickly leads to well-meaning pressure to eat, which leads to fussier eating, until we’re dealing with a fully blown problem that leads to a dietitian visit and months of behavioural modification.
At the same time, food restriction (another kind of pressure) also doesn’t work out well. Concern about an overweight child is valid, but research shows that withholding particular foods or extra portions can ironically lead to overeating and increased child BMI.
This is all very well and good, Mister Scientist, but where does that leave us? Should we give our children run of the groceries, eating when and where and what they will? Indeed not – permissive, over-relaxed parenting is equally associated with bad food habits in children. Boundaries and authority are still of utmost importance around food, but need to be implemented in a positive way.
You are allowed to have expectations and rules around the meal times. You always get to decide what goes on the table. Whether your child eats it or not is their choice, as is the amount they feel like eating (remember this!), but you are not there as a short order cook. Make it clear that you demand a certain level of (appropriate) maturity and politeness around the table. Depending on age, this should include no negative food talk (“Broccoli is yukky”), good table manners, and gratitude. Make it clear that while they do not have to eat the food, rudeness is not tolerated.
In return, it is important that you allow your child to self-regulate – while they cannot demand what foods appear on the plate, they can choose how much to eat, and whether they want to eat it at all. Giving your child a sense of responsibility and confidence around their food choices will lead to healthier eating habits in the long run. It is your responsibility to provide a variety of healthy foods to give your child a chance to choose something they can accept. Don’t underestimate the importance of modelling – when your child sees you eating and enjoying a variety of healthy foods, day in and day out, it can have an amazing effect on them eventually doing the same themselves. Create a positive environment around meal times. This involves giving cheerful feedback about what your child is doing well, loving compliments, and avoiding fighting or insults. Communicate with your child during meals in a warm way. Make sure they feel important, loved and heard.
This sounds like a long to-do list, but the best advice I can give parents wanting to deal with (or avoid) fussy eating is: Relax! Take a deep breath and a step back. Tension, anger and worry around meal times is a sure-fire way to create chronic food battles. If you are worried about your child’s health, go to a dietitian to get a check-up and a good plan. But remember that teaching your child to eat well is a long, educational, and often fun journey!