As parents today, we are faced with an increasing information overload on what is the best way to raise healthy, competent eaters with healthy eating habits. Recognize your most perfect plan is to not be perfect at all.
Parents often find themselves under enormous pressure to live up to a self-imposed standard; created by society’s idea of how one should raise their children today. Constant dieting trends are imposed on parents every day:
“Don’t let your child eat sugar. Don’t let your child eat too much fat. Avoid foods with added salt. Avoid refined carbohydrates. Only eat whole grains.”
The list goes on and on, and sadly, leaving most parents feeling lost when it comes to how to best nourish their own children.
The good news is that meals do not have to be picturesque, playful, or Instagram-worthy to fit the bill for a healthy child’s meal. Here are some tips to structure family meals around fun and enjoyment, the very foundation for your child’s healthier relationship with food.
To best help your child, you must help yourself first.
Many perceptions about getting a child to eat “healthy” foods are often with undertones of stress, control, or fear. However, these approaches don’t create family meal experiences that are actually enjoyable. An important place to start is to actually reflect on how you care for and nurture yourself. A child will often mirror how you feel, think, and behave around food. If you find yourself anxious, stressed, or conflicted around meal time, so will they. Modeling positive behaviors and attitudes with eating will allow you, the parent, to both teach and learn from your child in a manner that makes feeding enjoyable.
Recognize you are fueling your children’s bodies.
Create meals that are both nutritious and delicious. Remember that eating is not a “moral” issue, rather a fundamental necessity to thrive. Food rules are unrealistic to maintain, and designating foods as “good” or “bad” only creates a chaotic nature around food choices. Keep food neutral by allowing yourself and your family to enjoy a variety of foods, purposefully creating meals that are both appetizing and nutritious. Children will gravitate toward foods that appeal to them and do not eat foods based on what they think is “good for them”.
When meals are optimized in this manner, rather than thinking of what should be “avoided”, or what needs to be eaten, there is more opportunity for creating a healthy variety and flavor. No need to carefully “disguise” a serving of vegetables to be unrecognizable by a suspicious child during family meals. Getting back to the basics helps simplify the approach to child feeding, taking out guesswork and nurtures the feeding relationship.
Trust your child’s eating capabilities.
Everyone has likes and dislikes when it comes to food, and children are often sensitive to various textures and tastes. However, with repeated opportunity, a child will begin to experiment with trying new foods. It is easy to interpret a child’s initial rejection of a food as a permanent dislike. In reality, a child might need new food exposed to them several times before trying. Serving foods that might be more challenging for a child, like vegetables, alongside foods that are more familiar and comfortable, may encourage your child to experiment with a new food. Children intrinsically know how much to eat. Keep mealtimes low-pressure, and avoid coercing a child to eat something at the table. Foods become more desirable when there is less pressure to eat them.
Allow nutrition to fall into place.
When we try to overemphasize nutrition and healthy eating, we sometimes lose sight of the end goal. Will forcing your child to eat vegetables, among other food rules, champion a healthy eater in the long run? Start by giving yourself permission to eat and to find the pleasurable aspect of food again. Emphasize family meals that embrace the love of fellowship and wholesome food. Strive for variety to expose your child to positive exploration in the world of food choices. By keeping these aspects of feeding a priority, nutrition will naturally fall into place.
Remember that raising a healthy eater is more than just the food itself. The keys to feeding a healthy child include instilling a positive approach to foods, respecting and honoring your child’s capacity to feed, and placing importance on yourself and your family rather than on rules. Above all, trust yourself, and trust your child as you lay the foundation for a lifelong enjoyment of eating and nourishment.
Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC is a San Diego-based private practice dietitian helping others embrace their health for themselves and their loved ones. Focusing on maternal/child health and eating disorders, Crystal creates the nurturing, safe environment that is needed to help guide individuals towards a peaceful relationship with food and their bodies.