Grace Fjeldberg, RDN
Diabetes Education, Nutrition
As parents, it can be tempting to control the types and amounts of food that children eat, but these well-intentioned actions can sometimes create feeding problems, such as overeating, rebellious eating and secrecy eating.
Raising kids who are healthy eaters starts by becoming familiar with some typical eating behaviors of children. Picky eating, eating the same food every meal and changes in portions from meal to meal are all normal.
Introducing new foods
It takes 12 to 17 times to introduce a food to a child before they’re even interested in trying it, and children’s appetites will change based on how fast they’re growing. At times, it may seem like children are never full, and other times they won’t eat more than one bite.
Pushing children to eat all the food on their plate or enforcing the “one bite” rule isn’t recommended. Instead, parents should let children learn to eat in their own way.
Keeping mealtime tactics consistent is also important. For example, if parents push children to eat when they aren’t hungry, it could teach them to overeat by sending the message they need to eat even when they aren’t feeling hungry. If at another meal parents limit how much food a child can eat, it can give children mixed messages and ultimately doesn’t allow them to listen to their bodies.
Many parents are also concerned about what and how much their kids eat. Remember, it’s normal for kids to choose not to eat meat at one meal and then only eat bread at another. Pushing kids to eat food they don’t want could make them rebellious and choose to not eat it at all. When children are forced to eat veggies, for example, they often cry and may even gag. This experience may teach the child that veggies are not pleasant and may limit their desire to try them in the future.
Tips for raising healthy eaters
- Offer at least three of the following food groups at each meal and snack: fruits, veggies, whole grains, low-fat diary, or lean protein or legumes.
- Ensure there is always one food offered with each meal that your child will eat, while not catering to likes and dislikes.
- Give your child the responsibility in choosing how much and whether he or she wants to eat at a meal time.
- Create an environment that allows your child to explore, touch and experience different foods and textures at their own pace.
- Minimize mealtime distractions, such as the TV or having toys at the table. Enjoy conversation with family instead.
- Don’t be fooled by “distracted eating” — children will often say they’re done eating just to play even though they may not really be done eating.
- Take charge of eating by providing consistent meals and snack times.
- Model healthy eating behaviors in front your children — they learn best from you.
While most children have normal eating behaviors, if a child starts to gain or lose too much weight, a meeting with your health care provider or dietitian to determine possible reasons for the change can be helpful in supporting appropriate growth.
Over the course of a day, week or even a month, children will likely rotate through a variety of food groups to meet their growing needs. Just remember that most children will gradually learn to eat what their parents eat.Grace Fjeldberg is a registered dietitian nutritionist with Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. She has a special interest in working with pediatric diabetes and nutrition.