Only two more weeks until Jill and I turn in Fearless Feeding! I posted this over two years ago when Big A was just three. Having a strategy for the toddler/preschool age has really paid off. Now I’m gearing up for the next stage — the school-age years.
My daughter and I went to her friend’s 3rd birthday party. When it was time to sing happy birthday, the kids swarmed to the table full of cupcakes. When a bigger-than-average girl asked her dad for another cupcake, he said “no, one is enough.” The girl kept pleading until she was in full meltdown mode.
Around that same time my daughter asked me for another cupcake, when all she had eaten of the first was the frosting. The mom voice in me wanted to say “you didn’t even eat the cake part, no way!” But because of all I know, I said “sure.” She took one lick and announced to me that she was “all done.”
As we were leaving, I could hear the girl still asking her dad for another cupcake while my daughter had already forgotten about them.
The question every parent needs to ask themselves is the way they feed their child (now) effective in the long run? Let’s examine a few examples and see…
1. Being too strict with sweet foods: I understand why the father did what he did. He’s worried about his daughter’s weight and was limiting sweets as a result. But while his daughter might have had only one cupcake at the party (win for Dad), she was left obsessing about the sweet treat.
According to a 2007 review study published in the Journal of Public Health, parents often use restriction to help their overweight children even though research shows it backfires and is associated with further weight gain.
Now the answer is not to give your child sweets anytime they want them, but to create an environment where these items are not the focus. Check out my managing sweets series for helpful tips.
2. Making children eat “this” before they can eat “that:” My daughter has cereal with fruit for breakfast a few times a week. Lately she’s been eating most of the cereal and little of the fruit. When she’s done with the cereal and asks for more my mom voice tells me to say “not until you take a few bites of your fruit.” If I did that she would eat the fruit and it would make me feel better.
But what does this feeding strategy do over the long run? Which food becomes more desirable to kids – the fruit (or vegetable in other cases) or the cereal? Studies show that asking children to eat a certain food, in order to eat what they really want, makes them less likely to eat the healthy food when left to their own devices.
Instead of worrying about meal performance, provide fruits and vegetables at most eating occasions so children have plenty of opportunties to eat — and enjoy — them.
3. Having them take a few more bites before leaving the table: Dinner is my daughter’s – and most likely other toddlers’ – worst meal of the day. When my daughter barely touches her dinner, my mom voice tells me to say “take a few more bites.” And when its really being pushy it adds, “and if you don’t there will be no after-dinner TV.” No doubt this strategy would help get her to eat a little more at dinner time.
But over the long run something else may happen. Instead of listening to her body, she’d learn to focus on external cues to decide when she’s done. I know a lot of parents don’t consider weight a problem for their picky eaters, but disordered eating patterns and weight issues are very common in adults. Teaching children to listen to their internal cues of eating, is vital for their future health.
So I ignore the mom voice (again), and look my daughter in the eye and ask her if she’s sure she’s done. I ask her if her tummy is full – reminding her to check in with herself. Some kids get distracted at meals and need to be reminded of the task at hand.
Of course, other strategies like serving fruits and vegetables first and making sure kids’ afternoon snack isn’t close to dinnertime can help a great deal.
But as parents, we need to ask ourselves if our way of feeding, today, will help or hurt our children’s relationship with food over the long haul. So if you don’t have a feeding strategy, maybe it’s time to get one. For independent-minded toddlers, the division of responsibility works well. My picky eating series can also help.
Do you feel like you have an effective feeding strategy for the stage you are in? And if not, what do you need help with?
Clark HR, Goyder E, Bissell P, Blank L, Peters J. How do parents’ child-feeding behavior influence child weight? Implications for childhood obesity policy. J Public Health. 2007. June;29(2):132-41.
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.