The previous post in our series on picky eaters discussed why kids eat the way they do. Now it’s time to step back and consider how the way we feed children impacts their eating habits and food preferences over time.
One quick caveat. This article is not to meant to add to the already overwhelming guilt parents face when it comes to feeding their kids. Instead, the goal of this post is to help parents understand why certain feeding strategies fail and others flourish. When you understand the why behind feeding, it’s easier to make a change.
So with that in mind, let’s review the 10 common mistakes parents make when feeding picky eaters:
1. Cater to kids
Board Certified pediatric dietitian Angela Lemond, RD who blogs over at Mommy Dietitian, said the common feeding mistake she sees in her practice is short-order cooking. These are parents who make another meal when their kids say they don’t like what’s being served.
“Parents are so concerned kids won’t get the nutrition they need that they operate out of fear,” she says. “They don’t realize that letting their kids decide what to eat exacerbates the issue.”
In Child of Mine, Ellyn Satter’s explains it clearly: Making an alternative food so readily available tells your child louder than words can say, “I don’t expect you to learn to eat your meals.” Remember that your child wants to grow up with respect to eating, but she will take the easy way out if it is offered.
2. Not consider children’s food preferences
In our last article we talked about how truly scared kids can be when it comes to trying new foods. So while you don’t want kids to dictate the menu, you also want them to look down at their plate and see something that is familiar.
Christina over at Spoonfed blog said it perfectly in one of her comments: I’m not a fan of “eat-this-or-eat-nothing. So by offering the new items in addition to items you know the kids like (as part of the family meal, not by special order), you avoid that ultimatum while still exposing them to new foods.
3. Ask kids what they want
Does this sound familiar?
Parent: Do you want a turkey sandwich for lunch?
Parent: Do you want a quesadilla?
Parent: What do you want?
child: The same Chicken sandwich we have at grandmas.
Parent: We don’t have time for that. What do you want???
Young kids exert their independence whenever they can which may be why they tend to reply “no” to food offerings when asked. It’s much better for parents to decide what’s for lunch. Giving picky eaters the choice between two items works well.
4. Feed on demand
Feeding babies on demand makes sense but it doesn’t work for older children. First off, toddlers don’t always know how to communicate hunger until a meltdown implodes and older kids can use pretend hunger to get what they want (my daughter is always conveniently hungry when we go to Vons where they have free cookies). This type of feeding can also lead to grazing and poor behavior at mealtime.
Jennifer from The Mommy Archives implemented planned meals and snacks with great results: One of my biggest issues with my little guy is that he would literally get up from the kitchen table and exclaim ‘I’m still hungry, can I have a snack?’ The first time I explained to him that I had a snack planned for him later he said ‘OK’ and walked out of the kitchen. It was literally that easy. Planning the snacks has set his expectation that next meal would indeed come and that he couldn’t just snack when he wants to.
5. Praise healthy eating
If you’ve been following the parenting literature, you’ve probably heard that over-praising kids can have negative effects on their motivation.
An article in Parenting Science does an excellent job of summarizing the research in this area. In the article, Gwen Dewar, PhD, makes this interesting point about praising kids for doing what they love to do anyway.
…suppose that Adam loves to eat broccoli. But every time he eats broccoli, his mom praises him for it. Consciously or unconsciously, Adam starts to question his motivation. Is he eating broccoli only for the praise? Adam changes his attitude toward broccoli-eating. It’s a chore, not a pleasure. If the praise ends, Adam loses interest in eating broccoli.
6. Push veggies
When I asked Jennifer Orlet Fisher, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health at Temple University, the one thing she wants parents to know about feeding, she said: “The goal should not be to get kids to eat vegetables, it should be to make sure they like them.”
As she discussed in the last article, vegetables are not naturally preferred by kids and take time to be accepted. Instead of pushing the veggies, parents can focus on making them attractive and available to kids.
After all, studies show pressuring kids to eat healthy foods decreases their preference for such items. And which salesman are you more likely to buy from? The one who is in your face, pushing his product or one that sits back with an attractive looking product enjoying it himself?
7. Use food as a reward
A while ago I was reading a blog where the writer admitted to making her kids eat more food, like veggies, in order to get dessert. She said she knew “the experts” say not do this but she does it because it works. Her kids eat their vegetables and that makes her happy.
The question this mom needs to ask herself is will her kids eat vegetables when she is not around? Will they grow up liking vegetables or viewing them as obligation foods, like so many Americans do?
Research shows that this feeding strategy not only decreases kids’ preferences for the food they are made to eat (usually healthy fare) but it increases their fondness for the “reward” food.
8. Keep children on separate meals too long
When I recently told a room full of parents that by one year of age babies can eat meals with the family most of the parents looked at me like I had two heads. I told them that the kitchen table is where children learn to eat and the sooner kids can get there the better.
One of the moms from the class sent me an email after making the switch: My daughter is 13 months old and I was shocked to hear she should be eating with us, since she was still eating completely separate meals, very bland, usually pureed. I thought about what you told us and one night figured “what the heck” and gave her a chopped version of our adult food- she ate every single bite and loved it! Now we eat the same food every night, from curry to talapia to tacos.
9. Serve food naked
A reader wrote to me about making meals for her, her husband and her toddler: I need to realize though that a two year old probably will not be interested in plain, broiled fish fillets with steamed, unadorned broccoli.
You may like your food cooked with little fat and sauces, but your child probably doesn’t. Remember, kids prefer energy-rich food so adding dips and sauces (even butter) can aid their acceptance of such foods. We’ll save specific strategies for our next post.
10. Label kids as “picky eaters”
The other day at the grocery store I saw a young girl pick up raspberries asking her mom to buy them.
“Why do you want these? You NEVER eat raspberries when I buy them,” the mom replied in a stern tone.
What the mom didn’t understand was that this is how children learn to like different foods. They see it several times, they show interest, they don’t eat if for a while, they try a bite, they don’t eat it for a while, they try it again and so on. She was telling her daughter she didn’t like raspberries but that wasn’t true. Her daughter was going through the process of learning, the same way kids learn to do other things like read and write.
Don’t miss our next — and final — post in our picky eating series which provides proven ways parents can help their kids grow into good eaters.
Want this entire picky-eating series plus new content, research and stories? Get my book From Picky to Powerful
Tanofsky-Kraff M, Haynos AF, Kottler LA, Yanovski SZ, Yanovski JA. Laboratory-based studies of eating among children and adolescents. Curr Nutr Food Sci. 2007;3(1):55-74
Picky Eaters — Ellyn Satter, MS, RD