My kids are great eaters. You might say that I am lucky, but I think it is partly by design. Research shows us that genetics play a small part in setting eating habits. However, by and large a child's environment has the greatest impact. That means what I do as a mother really matters.
I know this because I have done several years of academic research on the best methods of feeding young children--I even wrote a doctoral dissertation on the topic. In the past few years I have read nearly every piece of research and literature that is available on feeding babies and young children.
Let me tell you, there is a lot.
Instead of rehashing all the specifics of the research mumbo-jumbo, I am going to tell you how I use the research everyday.
That means, I am going to explain exactly how I feed my own kids.
By no means am I suggesting that this is the only way or even the best way to feed your children. However it is the best way to feed my children--based on empirical research along with the needs and priorities of our family.
We know that children thrive when they are given limits and boundaries. This is true of eating as well. Therefore, having a consistent method in place for feeding young children will make meal times go more smoothly.
Here's Exactly How I Feed My Kids
This might sound like a lot of rules and restrictions--but my children have a positive relationship with food and meal times are very pleasant and happy. We started these methods from the earliest of ages--it is truly just routine in our home now. However, it's absolutely possible to make positive changes in the eating habits of children and adults at any age.
To start, I feed my children three meals a day. They are permitted to eat as much as they want of whatever I am serving for meal time. Quantities are not limited. Likewise, there are no minimum quantities of food required. I never dictate how much or how little they should eat. This includes no pleading to "take just one more bite".
We follow the cardinal rule of feeding which is firmly rooted in research. The adult chooses the type of food served and the kid chooses how much they are going to eat. Even if they choose none at all--that's completely ok.
These three meals a day consist of savory foods--not sweet. I am careful not to include an excess of sweet flavors with meals. With the exception of an occasional breakfast, I never give my kids fruit with meals. If I did, they would fill up on fruit and pass on the proteins and veggies. So we skip the sweet, even if it is naturally sweet.
I also try to include something green with every meal. I feed as many "green things" as possible because I want to be sure to constantly expose my children to plenty of bitter flavors. I also want to avoid them developing a phobia of green foods, which I definitely had growing up.
Ever heard a kid shriek at the mere sight of something green? That was me as a kid.
Generally, there is a morning snack and afternoon snack, although it's only given upon request (or obvious signs of hangriness). These snacks are small in size and meant to only hold over until the next meal. Quantities of snacks are limited. By limiting the quantity of snacks, the children eat better at meal times.
These snacks are always given at the table. With the exception of an occasional Larabar on-the-go during weekends, all food is eaten while sitting in a chair. I never chase my children down with food. If a child will only eat a food while carrying it around the house, they are not that hungry.
About 95% of the time, snacks in our house are fresh fruit, nut butter, yogurt, or some type of natural, sugar-free snack bar.
We don't use snacks as pacifiers. This means we don't give our kids snacks to keep them quiet in the grocery store or to distract them from other things. Using snacks to soothe upset or bored children is akin to emotional eating. We know that research tells us early feeding habits have an impact on eating for a lifetime. Therefore, I want to be extra careful that I am not setting my children up to rely on food for comfort, boredom, and restlessness as they grow into adults.
Don't Talk Food
Food is not discussed at the table. It's not forbidden to talk about food, but it's not a topic of conversation started by myself or my husband. With the exception of a few "yum" or "this is good" comments, we don't actually talk about eating.
I never ask if they like the food. I never tell them to eat the food. There is no "coaching" to get them to eat. When I set a plate of food in front of my child, they know exactly what to do with it. This is even true of animals--they don't need instructions.
Instead of discussing food--we talk about our day, discuss upcoming plans, and generally try to enjoy each others company. We keep the mood light and positive. Research also shows us the maintaining a positive environment at meal time actually results in better eating from our kids. Attitude is everything.
Drop the Assumptions
When my kids don't eat something they are served, I will not assume they don't like it. Instead, I assume they aren't hungry. Even if they haven't eaten all day, it's not my business to predict hunger in my children. If I give them food and they don't eat, they aren't very hungry. They always eat more at the next meal to catch up.
I have zero qualms with a kid not eating a single bite of dinner. Because frankly, sometimes they just aren't that hungry.
Let me explain. Let's say I just ate a meal of lasagna. An hour later, you come along and offer me a sweet potato. I like sweet potatoes. But honestly, I am not that hungry and I don't care to "make room" for a sweet potato.
But if you came along and offered me a chocolate, the story changes. I can "make room" for some chocolate.
We see this very commonly with children. If they refuse a meal that you are serving but opt instead of a reliable favorite food (yogurt? fruit? something sweet?) you can safely assume that they are not hungry per se--but rather they are in fact "making room".
We make the mistake of thinking children don't like the food that we serve, when the reality is that they simply just prefer something else. Just because I said no to the sweet potato doesn't mean I don't like sweet potatoes. Subsequently accepting the chocolate doesn't mean I am hungry, it means I just really love chocolate.
In our house, we don't keep any foods with refined sugars. Sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup are limited as well.
I want to avoid my children developing a strong preference for sweet tastes. Research tells us that children are born with a natural preference for sweet. Breastmilk is sweet and the natural inclination of infants is to seek out sweet flavors. This tendency helps newborns to root and find their first meals.
As kids grow, the tendency to seek out sweet continues. We know that when you eat something sweet, you crave more of it. Research is starting to show that sugar is addictive. When you eat a little sugar, you crave more. You also may develop an increased tolerance to it. Not to mention that my 3-year-old turns into a wild animal when given sugar.
Side note: I am always befuddled by the parents who give children a load of candy on an airplane or on a road trip. Are they beckoning punishment? Is it really fair to be irritated when the kids act like wild animals?
To me, sugar is an unnecessary component to enjoying childhood. What is a necessary component to enjoying childhood? Good health.
That being said, I do let my kids have sugar when we are out. The occasional cupcake at a birthday party or treat for ice cream. But we do keep it out of the house.
That sums it up. Three meals a day and a couple snacks--all from the comfort of a table and chair. I choose the foods, but I let my kids decide how much they are going to eat. There is a true balance of responsibilities when it comes to feeding my children--they have a job and I have a job. I make sure to provide the food and they make sure to eat when they are hungry. I don't stress in the least about how much my kids are eating--even though I have a skinny kid. My calm demeanor during meals is reflected onto my children. I believe they eat better as a result.
That's how I feed my kids. This is what works for my family--what works for yours?