Let me be the first mama to say that I feed my kids chicken nuggets. Is there anything wrong with these processed meat bites that kids seem to inhale faster than you can say “McDonald’s?”
As both a dietitian and a mother, I do not believe there is anything inherently “bad” about any single food. In fact, demonizing foods as good versus bad is often the catalyst for a chaotic relationship with food and body.
So what’s with these chicken nuggets anyway?
Perhaps one of the many struggles that we might face as parents is knowing how to best feed our children. When push comes to shove, most of us would rather offer our kids something that we know they are guaranteed to eat rather than worry that they won’t eat anything at all.
Having a child who refuses a variety of foods and only seems to accept a limited number of options can send any parent to the brink of madness. Do you cater to your child and cook something separate for them at each meal? Do you keep your kid’s favorite foods on hand as a back-up if the dinner plan seemed to fail?
You are not alone.
Understanding Picky Eating in Children
Let’s be real. A majority of children seem to experience challenges with eating to some degree, such as the following:
– Having strong food preferences
– Unwillingness to try new foods
– Eating a limited amount of food
– Restricted intake (particularly with vegetables)
While these eating behaviors can be concerning for any parent, research has found that picky eating does not have a significant effect on overall growth. Studies have also found that picky eating is usually a temporary behavior and is, in fact, part of normal development in preschool children.
Yet as parents, learning how to navigate these challenges with child feeding may be one of the most difficult things we encounter. Many of us would rather resort to feeding our child their tried and true favorites rather than have to face a meal time battle or struggle at the dinner table.
So we may default to preparing several different dishes for meal time to try to appease everyone, but being a short order cook is frankly not realistic. Nor does this create an enjoyable mealtime experience for the entire family.
As they say, “If mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”
Defaulting to serving our children the only foods we know for certain they will eat may seem like a short-term solution, but in the long-run, this may actually be doing them a disservice in terms of developing a healthy relationship with food.
So what’s a mama got to do?
Thankfully, there are many practical feeding strategies you can begin implementing with your children, no matter what your struggles have been to this point.
As a mama of four (almost five) and a dietitian, I have experienced child feeding struggles in a myriad of ways. Here are some ways to navigate picky eating behaviors and help encourage your child (and yourself) to feel empowered and successful at meal times:
1. Keep mealtimes low pressure.
As parents, it concerns us if we think our child is not eating adequately or getting the foods they need. So we might resort to bribery, coercing, nagging, arguing and the like to get them to eat. However, this is often overreaching on our part.
Children actually have an amazing, innate ability to eat according to what their bodies are needing, and as parents, we need to give them the opportunity to do so. Pushing kids to eat certain foods or amounts that they don’t want can actually backfire, so it’s best to keep the mealtime environment as low pressure as possible.
As parents, it is our responsibility to determine when and what is being served for meals and snacks. It is up to the child to decide how much they want to eat — and they can do this perfectly well with little interventions on our part.
2. Repeat exposure to new food.
Studies on child feeding have found that children need as many as 8 – 15 exposures to a particular food before gaining acceptance of that food. However, once we see the first signs of food rejection, it is easy to give up on serving that food to our child entirely. Don’t give up.
It may take your child repeated exposure to a food, again, in a low pressure environment, to eventually accept that particular food. Offer new foods alongside familiar foods and allow them to decide whether or not they want to try it. You might be surprised at how they come around after repeated exposure with little pressure.
Keep in mind, however, this doesn’t necessarily apply to children with sensory processing disorders, in which case nudging and repeated exposure can be problematic.
3. Make the eating experience fun.
As mothers, we are overwhelmed with information on everything parenting-related, including how we should feed our children. This, coupled with demanding schedules and children who may be facing mealtime struggles can make eating unpleasant for the whole household.
Reclaim the pleasurable experience that eating should be and be intentional about your family meal experience. Even if it’s only one meal a week that your family starts eating together, make it a point to sit down, share a meal, and most importantly, enjoy each other’s company. Creating fun traditions at the table, like kid trivia or a dinner theme night, can help bring the joy back to mealtime.
4. Be the example.
As difficult as this may be, remember that children often form their eating habits based on the influence of those around them. This can be a helpful time for some self-reflection, examining your own relationship with food and body.
Are you aiming for a variety of foods? Do you prioritize self-care by taking the time to feed and nurture your own body? Do you find yourself struggling with any food-related issues? Whether we know it or not, our food behaviors do influence our children. It’s important to ask yourself these questions and determine if you need more support.
So take heart, mama. You may feel defeated from mealtime battles with your children or hopeless that they will ever eat anything beyond their own comfort foods. But there is always hope for change and growth. Remember that raising a healthy family encompasses both the nurturing and pleasurable aspect of eating and being able to share this with your loved ones.
Disclaimer: Parents, please be aware that the information in this article is strictly educational and should not be used as medical advice. In some situations, children may be struggling with serious feeding disorders that should be evaluated by medical professionals. If you are concerned about your child’s intake, growth, or any other medical concerns, please consult with your pediatrician and/or registered dietitian.