Lately, I’ve been thinking about how feeding my kids has changed through the years.
I can see for the first several years, my husband and I were building a foundation. But once children are on solid ground — and their minds grow and develop — things need to change. And the old ways get replaced with something new and better.
If we don’t change, kids may get stuck. They may complain more or become too reliant on parents to make food decisions for them. And let’s face it, most of the resources available on feeding apply to younger kids.
So here are 6 ways parents need to adjust feeding as kids cross the double-digit line (10), to help them grow into independent eaters.
1. From Division of Responsibility (DOR) to training for your job
Ten years ago I had a baby and toddler. When both my kids were babies, I carefully responded to their cues of hunger and fullness. With infants, these cues are more subtle since babies can’t talk and are often fed by an adult. This is referred to as responsive feeding.
During the picky toddler years, I relied heavily on Satter’s Division of Responsibility to guide me. The idea is that parents and children have distinct feeding roles. Parents decide when it’s meal or snack time, what will be served at meal or snack time, and where eating will occur. The child’s job is to choose what and how much to eat from what parents serve.
This helps kids self-regulate their eating and keeps meals peaceful. Yet over time always being responsible for the what, when, and where can wear thin. That’s because kids’ need for independence grows and they are often home alone for periods of time or at a friend’s house.
Parents need to coach kids on taking over the parent’s job. For example, having nutritious food options available and explaining (over and over) what makes balanced choices like choosing 2-3 food groups for a snack. And still enforcing the guide that eating occurs at a designated place like the kitchen table and that being hungry is the best time to eat a snack, considering when the next meal is.
2. From role model to teacher
It goes without saying that parents are important role models when it comes to food and eating. Yet as children get older they need to learn more nutrition specifics because their nutrition needs grow right along with them.
In My Body’s Superpower, Chapter 3 (Super Functioning) runs through body systems explaining how different foods help the body grow strong. We need to spend more time educating them so they can make choices to meet their needs, such as calcium for building strong bones. And if they need to be supplemented, they need to understand why.
Again, this is more like coaching than telling them what to do or nagging. Nutrition should be a “want to” and not feel like an obligation. In other words, kids need to make good choices for themselves, not to please a parent.
3. From side strategy to make any meal
I’ve written about having a side strategy which I’ve had for many years. This is where you serve dinner but always make sure there are a couple of items a child accepts in case they don’t eat the main meal. Over time kids branch out and the side strategy is needed less and less.
That has happened in our house but not for every meal. The problem is as kids get older, having one or two sides may not be enough to fill them up. For some kids, hunger may motivate them to branch out but this is not always the case. Also, busy schedules mean certain meals like slow cooker mixed dishes or casseroles work better but can be challenging for kids to accept.
As kids get older, they can work on expanding their food options. Simply talking to them about how challenged they feel about different meals. If they agree, you can make time for them to experiment with different foods on their own.
Here’s the thing: you want kids to graduate to being able to go to different restaurants or dinner at a friend’s feeling confident they can eat the food that is there. And while some kids get there naturally, others need more support.
4. From special recipes to stocking the fridge
When my kids were little I tried so many recipes. I made three different types of Mac-n-Cheese. One with butternut squash and another with cauliflower. I also spent time making green pancakes, veggie-filled pasta sauce that made it turn bright orange, and other food items that were cute and nutritious. The same is true for those adorable bento lunches that are plastered all over the internet.
As kids get older, parents are better off spending their time stocking the fridge. This can be chopping fruits and vegetables and putting them in containers for easy access. Have easy protein options like chicken, fish, or beans and items to make a sandwich (tomatoes sliced). I also make and freeze bean and cheese burritos and blueberry waffles every week. Stock, stock, stock.
I’m guilty of not doing this some weeks and I can feel the difference. Having everything ready allows kids to make their own lunch, grab different food groups for a snack, and be independent and make nutritious choices.
Oh, and it’s good for adults too.
5. From parent control of sweets to child trust
When kids are young, there are different ways to handle sweets. For example, feeding expert Ellyn Satter recommends serving dessert with dinner. Or parents may adopt a flexible sweets policy of one sweet thing a day or a few times per week. This lays the foundation for kids learning how to include sweet foods. It also takes the focus off the sweets and lessens nagging to eat less or constant requests.
But when kids reach middle school they are faced with choices without you being there and it’s important to hand over that trust. Instead of interrogating them for what they ate outside the house, you can remind them to consider what they had today before having something sweet. Also, help them problem solve if issues arise. For example, some kids turn to items like cookies to satisfy them because their main meal wasn’t filling enough.
Most importantly, having trust in them makes them more likely to trust themselves. My daughter tells me how she bought something to eat at school (like a Rice Krispie treat) and I tell her she doesn’t need to tell me. I trust her.
6. From Food Exposure to Hands-On Exposure
Exposing kids to a variety of food is always important but especially those early years when children enter the picky phase around age two. As kids get older they need more hands-on experience with food and cooking is the way to get there. But with busy schedules and homework, kids may not always be up for helping out or making food.
The key is to be strategic. Pick a day during the week that is less busy or take time for cooking when the kids (and you) are off like the impending holidays. For example, have kids pick a recipe online for thanksgiving and put them be in charge of it. The key is for them to do the choosing, following what appeals to them. I have found time and time again this is the way to go.
There’s no doubt that what we do when kids are little acts as a stepping stone to more responsibility. If we stay back doing what used to work, there’s a lack of growth. We want kids to practice what we did for them the first part of their lives, so by the time they leave the house, they are ready.
Want more information feeding older kids? Check out Fearless Feeding (for parents) and My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up healthy During Puberty