“Mealtimes are a disaster at our house.”
“He only eats macaroni & cheese and chicken nuggets.”
“How can I make my child eat vegetables?”
As pediatricians, we hear these statements every day. Parents say “my child will not eat…what do I do?” Nutrition is very important to parents, and children realize very early on that eating and food can be used to their advantage…and so begins what we refer to as “Food Wars”!
In reality, you cannot make another person eat. Children, from a very early age, demonstrate this by closing their mouths, turning their heads away, and spitting food out. Parents worried about their young children’s eating start trying to force feed a bit, or play games like “here comes the choo choo” with the spoon. As the children get older, parents often start bargaining (e.g., ”no dessert unless you eat X” or ”you will not leave the table unless you finish Y”).
So what are parents to do?!
First things first. Children are born good self regulators. They know when they are hungry and full. They know how to moderate their intake, and if we try to control this, we are not nurturing that ability.
Secondly, not every meal will be perfectly balanced, and that is okay! Don’t stress about individual meals. They will have balanced intake over the course of a day or several days, and that is okay too.
As parents, our job is to provide healthy food for them. We tell parents that you can only control what is on the plate; once you give the plate to your child, it is theirs. They choose what they want and how much they eat. This is one of the hardest things for parents to do.
As an adult, you certainly would not want to hear: “If you do not eat that broccoli, there will be no dessert ever!” or “I am so hurt you did not like my cooking; I worked all afternoon to make you a healthy dinner and you are not eating it!” However, it is easy to say these kinds of things to kids. If you fight with your child about food, you will never win because – remember – you cannot make another person eat!
Don’t focus on what you cannot do; focus on what you can and should do. Here are 3 ways you can help your child when it comes to food:
- Buy healthy food and serve balanced meals. Role model healthy eating and good food habits. Be adventurous and try new foods together.
- Don’t make meal times a battle. When your children say they are full, say “okay.” Meal time should be a pleasant time to interact and a chance to talk about the day and tell stories. As your kids get older, you will love meal times as they can tell you what’s happening in school and what they are thinking. Set the foundation for meal times as a time to share from the beginning.
- Get your children involved in meal preparation – take them shopping and let them pick out a fruit or vegetable they might want to try, or have them help even in simple ways like putting fruit in the bowl or setting the table. Even toddlers can help!
It will not always be a smooth ride. Sometimes toddlers like to declare a ”food strike” – be patient and stick with your plan. Give them the option to eat. Eventually they will get hungry and eat. They realize that food is very important and are testing you, but if you just keep calm, you will be pleasantly surprised. Instead of hearing “Yuck, I am not eating this!” you will hear “More please!”
And remember: as always, speak to your pediatrician with any concerns about feeding and nutrition.