Everywhere I turn, some expert is talking about the problem of over-involved parents. A new book that was recently reviewed by the NY Times, “The Gift of Failure,” explains how children are better off when they can actually make mistakes on their own. Because, well, that’s how they learn.
But watching a kid struggle when we know the answer — or how to do it better — isn’t always easy. One area completely overlooked in this realm of failing is eating. To learn about food, eating and their body, kids need to mess up. So here are the top three “learning mistakes” I think kids need to experience.
1. Let Them Get Hungry
When a child says he’s hungry, it can send any adult into a panic searching for food. But what does this teach? Hunger is something that needs to be attended to immediately. Whether that’s the intention or not, kids catch on that hunger is something to get rid of quick.
When my kids say they are hungry before dinner I always answer with “good, you’ll enjoy the meal more.” We want kids to learn that pangs of hunger do not need to be fixed immediately. When kids experience the consequence of not getting enough at meals, they are incentivized to fill up when they get the chance. And when they don’t always see favorite food at gatherings — and they choose not to eat — they learn what happens: hunger. Putting aside medical conditions and special circumstances, the occasional longer-than-parents-like bout of hunger teaches kids how to do a better job of managing their hunger.
2. Let Them Eat Too Much
“Don’t eat too much, you’ll get a tummy ache.” Parents often hover to make sure kids get just the right amount of sweets. But eating past fullness, especially non-nutritious items, teaches kids a few different lessons.
First, it can remove the taboo from non-nutritious foods. If my kids seem to be obsessed with some food, I plan an eat-all-you-can snack. Sure enough, they stop asking for it. It squashes their curiosity instead of piquing it.
Second, they can learn the adverse effects of eating too much of food that simply isn’t good at nourishing the body. Big A now realizes that starchy foods, like Cheese-Its, don’t fill her up. She learned that thanks to her weekly visit to Grandma’s.
A child can only learn the limits of his body by experiencing them.
3. Let Them Cook Their Way
Big A made guacamole from start to finish the other night with no help from me. It ended up way too watery. You better believe next time she will add less yogurt and salsa. We talked about how you can always add more so it’s best to start off small.
Those nice and neat pictures of kids helping in the kitchen are not real! It gets messy and they make mistakes. But then one time they get it and their confidence builds. And you realize the mistakes are what taught them.
Coco, a mom of two girls 6 and 8, has had her kids helping in the kitchen since they were two. Now they can cook simple meals on their own. But she remembers lots of mistakes, ” We once made pizza and whilst making the dough, my daughter accidentally put too much liquid into the flour and it became more like a paste,” she says. “We played with the paste on the table for a while and the pizza ended up having bread as its base.”
There’s a myth that good eaters always eat a variety of foods, stop after consuming balanced portions, are natural cooks and only want one cookie (if that!). No, the kids who grow into good eaters are the ones who were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. Of course, with supportive parents there to help guide them.
What are some food mistakes your kid has made?
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