One size has never fit all when it comes to parenting techniques and this is especially true when it comes to feeding children. Too many of us have been conditioned to think that our children should be allowed to decide what they eat. You put food in front of your child and it’s up to him if he eats it. That sounds great, but he will most likely skip the healthy food and go straight for chicken nuggets and dessert. Luckily, you can help your child learn to make healthy choices on his own, with a little help from you.
Here are some tips for raising healthy eaters:
Model good eating
What you choose to eat has a significant impact on the food choices your child makes, no matter what his age. Of course, parents have more influence on younger children, because older children will also want to mimic what they see their friends eating, but setting a good example from when your child is very young will help him develop healthy eating habits that his friends may even want to imitate.
Other than being born preferring the taste of sweet things and disliking bitter flavors, we are not born loving broccoli or beans. We actually learn to like a food based on the number of times we have eaten it. We now know that it takes 10 to 15 exposures to a new food to learn to like it. Since variety in a diet is essential, making sure to expose children to many different foods is great for their health.
When it comes to how you feed your child, follow the advice on parenting in general. The most effective parenting techniques take into consideration both the parent’s and the child’s needs. This is called being authoritative. If you are too strict (authoritarian) or too lenient (indulgent) or even hands-off (uninvolved), you will not be as effective at parenting in general or in bringing up healthy eaters. Balance is the key.
Always question “I’m full”
Children learn from a very young age how to get out of eating something that they do not like, and they notice that if they say “I’m full,” parents tend to back off immediately. While you want to respect what your child is saying, you do need to question him when he announces that he is full after eating only a couple bites of dinner.
What does “I don’t like this” really mean?
When children say they don’t like a food it can mean any number of things, including: “I would rather have the French fries and not my broccoli.” “I just want to skip this and get to dessert.” “I would rather have chicken nuggets and not fish.” If your child says that he does not like a lot of healthy food, for instance, you could reply with, “That’s too bad. It likes you, so please eat it” Try this approach as long as it is not a food your child truly despises (see below).
Push in the middle
On a scale of 1 to 10, we all have foods we hate (#1), that really upset us or make us gag, and foods we love (#10). The trick is to never, ever push food in the 1-to-2 range, but to encourage the middle ground-foods that would rate in the 3-to-7 range.
Eating a balanced diet was something we used to be able to do without thinking about it, when all foods were straight from nature. Today, however, we have to think about what to eat and how to pass that knowledge onto our children. Like any behavior you teach your child, it takes time and repetition, but it’s worth the reward: a healthy child who has reached his potential in all things.
Dr Deb Kennedy is an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven and the CEO of Build Healthy Kids®. Her new book The Picky Eating Solution has gained support from Dr Oz and Cat Cora.